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A customer gets a manicure at Polished Nail Spa in Berkeley

California may crack down on harmful chemicals used in nail care products

on December 10, 2014

Soo-Jin Yang is a perfectionist. She owns an upscale nail salon in downtown Oakland called the Cosmo Spa Lounge, and holds her staff and the products they use to high standards. So when she found out one of her nail polish lines contained harmful chemicals, she threw away every bottle—over 300 of them.

“It was bags and bags and bags,” Yang said. “It was crazy.”

The offending chemicals—toluene, dibutyl phthalate, and formaldehyde—have been linked to cancer, reproductive health problems, and potential nerve damage, but are still used in nail polish, hair straighteners, and other consumer products. Nail salon workers, mostly Vietnamese women of reproductive age, are the most vulnerable to their toxic effects.

“Salon products are used by workers all day, most days a week,” said Catherine Porter, a former labor lawyer who is now policy director at the Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, an advocacy group based in Oakland. “Many of these products contain chemicals linked to cancer, asthma, and reproductive harm which is of great concern given this work force is predominately women of reproductive age.”

To make the workplace safer for salon workers, the collaborative recently asked the state of California to mandate manufacturers to seek less toxic formulations for nail care products.

Over 100,000 chemicals are in production today, but most of them haven’t been tested for their health impacts, and even those which are known to be toxic, such as formaldehyde, can still be found in products from nail polish to hair straighteners. After finding lead in lunchboxes and jewelry marketed to kids, the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) launched a program called Safer Consumer Products. The mission is to reduce toxic chemicals in everything from baby pacifiers to insulation.

The DTSC released a draft work plan this year that outlines the broad areas from which it will select products containing chemicals so toxic that manufacturers must try to find a safer alternative. This year, spray-foam insulation, a certain type of paint thinner, and a flame retardant used in day-care nap mats were chosen. Over the next three years the DTSC will add five to 10 products annually. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative has urged the DTSC to make nail care products a priority because they pose a special risk to the low-income and immigrant population that works in nail salons.

Nail salons employ over 300,000 workers in California, and it’s estimated that 50 to 80 percent of them are Vietnamese. “Their use of those products is not exactly voluntary because it’s connected with their ability to make a living,” Porter said. In the Vietnamese immigrant community, doing nails is seen as one of the few ways to make decent money that doesn’t require speaking English. Porter said this means many women are forced to choose between exposure to the hazards of nail salons or unemployment.

But there are ways to make salons safer—by installing proper ventilation, switching to products that don’t contain highly toxic chemicals, and wearing protective equipment, like gloves. With the help of the collaborative, a handful of California counties have started an education and certification program, called Healthy Nails, to implement these strategies.

Alameda is one of the counties with such a program, and the Cosmo Spa Lounge is one of only twelve salons out of hundreds that have completed the certification. But Cosmo was already safer than most, used less toxic products, and had a very different employee demographic and clientele than most salons in Oakland. All of Yang’s employees speak English, only one is Vietnamese, and manicures start at $35, much higher than the typical range of $12 to $18.

The language barrier is one reason Vietnamese salon workers and owners are particularly vulnerable to the potential dangers of toxins in nail products. The information manufacturers provide about hazardous materials is almost always in English. A 2008 study of Vietnamese nail salon employees in Alameda County by Stanford scientists found that 77 percent were born in Vietnam, and in a 2013 survey only half the workers interviewed had finished high school. The 2008 study found 80 percent of Vietnamese salon workers in Alameda County were concerned about the effects of the chemicals on their health, and 62 percent had experienced some health problem since working in a salon. But without ingredient labels and safety information in Vietnamese, it’s very hard for most workers to know what they are being exposed to. The certification program in Alameda County includes education and outreach in Vietnamese, but the county doesn’t have the resources to reach out to all the thousands of salon workers in the area.

The DTSC has three years to decide whether to demand alternatives for the toxins currently allowed in nail care products. Meanwhile, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative will continue to provide trainings for salon workers in Alameda County and throughout the state to choose safer products and protect themselves. But Porter said they hope that, regardless of the DTSC’s actions, they will “see more and more products evolving to have safer formulations.” Salon owner Yang agrees, and is encouraged by the progress already being made. “Companies are listening to the consumers and the nail professionals,” she said, “and they’re realizing that we’re working with these chemicals on a daily basis.”


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  2. Beth Landry on January 13, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    I think it would be a great service to salon workers and their clients if the DTSC would demand alternatives to the toxins currently in many nail products. Thank you for the informative article.

  3. Dominique Lawrence on October 15, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    Great article! I believe that this issue is a very important one. For consumers and salon workers. Beyond the issue of nail product toxicity, manicurist need to know what their rights are to avoid employer misconduct. Consumers are unaware of the complexities this industry presents. Therefor, unable to advocate for the people they’ve grown to befriend and love. There needs to be a national movement to bring light to the issue, if there isn’t already one.

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