Nail Salons Under Scrutiny in Wake of New York Times Investigation

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 (bettyx1138/via Flickr)

The recent New York Times investigation of grim working conditions in New York-area nail salons focused first on wage violations, and -- in a detailed second part -- on the health risks that some ingredients in nail products pose for those working in salons day in, day out.

A limited but growing body of medical research, the Times reported,  "shows a link between the chemicals that make nail  products useful  — the ingredients that make them chip-resistant and pliable, quick to dry and brightly colored, for example — and serious health problems."

The Times talked to 125 nail salon workers and found frequent complaints of respiratory problems and nosebleeds. A doctor spoke of seeing women who had symptoms consistent with being smokers, but they were not. Some women reported repeated miscarriages.

Regulation around these products is scant -- the federal law regulating cosmetics is about 75 years old. As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explains on its own website, "FDA does not have the legal authority to approve cosmetics before they go on the market."

In addition to looking at the New York City area, the Times also profiled a program run by Asian Health Services in Oakland, which was taken up in detail by KQED's Forum earlier this week.


Julia Liou, of Asian Health Services, called the current set of regulatory laws "a broken system." She outlined "what we call the toxic trio" of ingredients in nail products:

  • Formaldehyde, which hardens nail polish. According to the National Cancer Institute, short-term health effects include coughing and wheezing, and it has been linked to some cancers.
  • Toluene, used in the production of polymers that make nail polish. It acts on the central nervous system and can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea.
  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which prevents polish from becoming brittle. The state of California has classified DBP as a reproductive and developmental toxicant, meaning it's especially dangerous for pregnant women. It has been banned in Europe.

While many manufacturers voluntarily agreed to make their products without these ingredients, plenty are still on the market.

Liou is co-founder of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which promotes safer products and practices to benefit both workers and consumers. "There are a set of criteria in order to be designated as a healthy nail salon," Liou said. "And that involves not only health and safety training that the owners and the workers need to participate in, but also that they use safe, less toxic products. There are safer alternatives out there."

Terrena Atchison, who owns a salon in Pacifica,  is part of the healthy nail salon program. "Once we joined the program, we had to get rid of all the toxic products," Atchison said. "That way we can promote a healthier work environment for [the employees] and for me, because I work there, too. ... My employees are happy."

Improved ventilation and using protective gear are also part of the program. Staff members with the program provide free education and other support to help salon owners adopt all the required practices.

The program is limited, but growing. "Healthy nail salons" are found mostly in the Bay Area and Santa Monica. A caller to Forum suggested that Yelp include an indication that a nail salon is in the program.

In the wake of the Times investigation, New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, has ordered emergency measures to protect nail salon workers. But Liou urged a certain degree of caution.

"The last thing we want to do is create this culture fear and … make even more vulnerable the workers that are in these nail salons," she said. "These are immigrant-owned businesses."

She said consumers should pay attention for any "egregious issues happening, but at the same time, consumers really help educate workers and owners … and we urge consumers to ask for greater regulations."

San Francisco filmmakers Diane Griffin and Erica Jordan are putting the finishing touches on a documentary, "Painted Nails," which follows the story of a Vietnamese immigrant who owns a San Francisco nail salon. As she learns of the health risks of chemicals that she works with every day, she becomes an activist and ultimately testifies before Congress.

Watch the trailer:

Painted Nails - Trailer from DigAll Media on Vimeo.