The desire for beautiful nails has fuelled an entire nail salon industry that’s growing rapidly, with storefronts cropping up on every major street across the nation.
Yet, the recent articles from the New York Times exposed an industry that’s left workers struggling both with unlivable wages and with damaged health. Everyone who enters a nail salon can be affected, yet the workers are the ones left entirely unprotected.
A chemical by any other name
Nail care products contain, in varying amounts, many toxic and potentially hazardous ingredients.
Chemical ingredients in nail care products range from cancer-causing compounds such as formaldehyde to others that disrupt the endocrine system. Researchers have identified toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate – nicknamed the “toxic trio” because of their serious health impacts – as three chemicals of high concern for salon workers.
Toluene is a commonly used solvent that creates a smooth finish across the nail and keeps the pigment from separating in the bottle, but can affect the central nervous system and cause reproductive harm. Its major use is as an additive in gasoline.
Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is used as a nail-hardening agent and disinfectant for nail care tools.
Exposure to dibutyl phthalate, added to polishes to provide flexibility, has been linked to reproductive problems. In addition to this trio, there are many other harmful chemicals used in nail care products.
Many nail salons lack adequate exhaust ventilation or multiple pathways – such as open windows and doors – to increase indoor-outdoor air exchange. Evaporated chemicals from nail products are often trapped inside salons, meaning workers are continuously exposed. So workers' exposure is amplified: first they experience direct contact with the chemicals in the products, then they continuously breathe in these chemicals within small, poorly ventilated salons.
Lack of regulatory oversight
Despite nail care products' heavy use, industrial chemicals in cosmetics are largely unregulated in the US.
In fact, of the 10,000 chemicals used in personal care products, only about 10% have been assessed for safety. While the US Food and Drug Administration is responsible for the regulation of cosmetics, it lacks the legal authority to require manufacturers to conduct product pre-market testing to ensure consumer safety or to require listing of ingredients in products sold for professional use.
What does that mean for the average consumer? Bottom line, that bottle of nail polish you apply to your nails or the nails of your five-year-old little girl was put on the market without ever having been tested for safety.
For workers using nail care products daily, there is no requirement for product manufacturers to disclose ingredients on their labels. And even if they do, no one is really checking to ensure that these are accurate listings. A report by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control on product testing of various nail polish brands in the San Francisco Bay Area found that some contained harmful chemicals despite misleading labels that claimed they were free of such compounds.
The rising awareness of the health hazards posed by the chemical ingredients in nail care products has pressured manufacturers to create safer alternatives in the form of nail polishes free of the toxic trio. But many products still contain them and there is no regulatory oversight. (Post continues after gallery.)