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Health hazards in nail salons: Tips for consumers

3044578995_fe5151de75_zAfter exercise class the other day, my friend asked if I wanted to grab coffee and get our nails done. With nail salons on what seems like every block, having a manicure or pedicure is as easy as grabbing a latte. You don’t need an appointment and you’re done in less than an hour.

But this convenience comes at a cost. A recent investigative report in the New York Times exposed the not-so-bright side of nail salons. The articles have raised awareness of poor working conditions and health risks, and they've generated a vigorous public dialogue.

“It got people talking and that’s a good thing,” said Thu Quach, PhD, MPH, a research scientist at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California and research director at Asian Health Services.

An epidemiologist, Quach has spent much of her career studying harmful chemicals in nail care products and their health impacts on nail salon workers, a vulnerable workforce that is mainly comprised of low-income immigrants. In research studies she has conducted over time, Quach identified symptoms commonly experienced by salon workers, including dizziness, rashes, and respiratory difficulties, and more serious reproductive health effects and cancer.

“Unfortunately, the risks associated with chronic, long-term exposure to chemicals used in nail products have been little studied,” Quach said. “We know workers are exposed every day and their health is at risk - this is an important focus of my ongoing research.”

The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative (CHNSC), convened through Asian Health Services, educates salon owners, workers and consumers about health and safety issues, and advocates for stronger protections for all. Quach, who has been a CHNSC member since its inception, works closely with other members to address worker health and safety using an integrated approach of community outreach, research, and policy advocacy to address health and safety. The CHNSC has worked at the local, state, and federal level to promote changes.

Encouraging counties and cities to adopt the healthy nail salon program is a first step in their local approach. Participation is voluntary and to date three counties and one city have committed: Alameda, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Monica. These counties provide training and formal recognition for salons that participate. Santa Clara has the program in the works and many salons throughout the state participate in healthy initiatives on their own.

In addition to local municipalities taking action, some manufacturers have stepped up to omit the “toxic trio” - dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde – from their formulations. But despite rising awareness of the health hazards posed by these chemicals, many products still contain them and there is no regulatory oversight.

Quach and her colleagues advise consumers to pay attention and to ask questions.

  • Nail polishes should not contain the “toxic trio”- toulene, dibutyl phthalate and formaldehyde.
  • Nail polish removers should not contain ethyl or butyl acetate.
  • Salons should be well ventilated.
  • Workers should wear nitrile gloves when handling nail products.
  • Look for the healthy nail salon logo at your nail salon in participating counties/cities.
  • Replace your old products with toxic trio-free alternatives.

If there are no healthy nail salons in your area, find out why. Talk to the salon owner and to your representatives at the county and state levels. Ask policymakers to enact stronger regulations. Insist that manufacturers be made accountable for the contents of their products. Talk to your friends and raise awareness in your own circles.

“Our choices as consumers can play a huge role in creating healthier workplaces for workers, especially in this service industry. Our buying power for safer products can also influence manufacturers, a key contributor to this health issue,” Quach said.

Jana Cuiper is associate director of communications at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California.

Previously: Researchers create glowing fish to illuminate health effects of environmental chemicals, Federal government tests potential health risks of 10,000 chemicals using high-speed robot, Gel polish: What risks lie beneath painted beauty? and Study shows high levels of potentially toxic chemicals in pregnant women in California
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

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