Glossed Over Nail Salon Workers and Cosmetic Consequence

On winter nights the neon sign “Nail Boutique” glows on Hudson Street in New York City’s West Village. The door is shut tight to keep out the cold. At closing time, the manager doles out the day’s pay to her all-Chinese staff, including her husband, a manicurist. He makes a big show of thanking his wife for his wages, drawing laughs from the other employees. Of everyone there, her English is the best, but still not good. She’s six months pregnant and her belly bulges underneath her apron. I ask her if she’s worried for her baby being around all the fumes in the salon. She says she’s not.

And that is the extent of what is known about the workers who handle and inhale the toxic fumes from dibutyl phthalate (usually known as DBP), toluene and formaldehyde every day.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the nail polish, hardeners and remover under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. But as the law is written, the FDA does not test cosmetics before they go to market. Instead the agency relies on internal studies conducted by the companies making the products. If the cosmetic is deemed unsafe, it can still go to market by adding a sentence on the label reading, “Warning—the safety of this product has not been determined.”

The nail industry uses some 10,000 chemicals that have not been tested by the FDA. According to a 2006 study by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Union, 89 percent of these chemicals have not been tested for safety by independent scientists, either. Lab animals exposed to these chemicals have developed birth defects and hormonal and reproductive problems.

Only because of the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act are consumers privy to the ingredients in these products. According to the EPA, overexposure to chemicals commonly found in nail polishes and hardeners—including toluene, DBP, ethyl acetate and formaldehyde—can cause headaches, dizziness, irritation to the eyes, throat, skin and respiratory track. And the chemicals can interfere with human reproduction and development. In a study on Vietnamese nail salon workers in Massachusetts, 30 percent of employees reported a respiratory problem that improved away from work, 24 percent reported being allergic to something at work, 30 percent reported skin problems that improved away from work and 63 percent said that the odors at work made them feel bad.

“There are a lot of toxic products, and there’s often very poor ventilation,” says Dr. George Friedman-Jiménez, director of the Bellevue/New York University Occupational and Environmental Medicine Clinic.

Toluene, found in polish and nail glue, is an aromatic hydrocarbon—hence its sweet smell. It is commonly used as a solvent in paints, paint thinners, glue and gasoline—the fumes of which are often illegally inhaled as a recreational drug for its intoxicating effect.

Anyone who dissected a fetal pig in high school biology knows the pungent smell of formaldehyde, commonly used as an embalming fluid. Formaldehyde resins, found in nail polish and hardeners, are also commonly used for paints and foams and to make insulation or casts for common household items like plywood or carpeting, thought to significantly contribute to indoor air pollution. The EPA lists formaldehyde as a probable carcinogen.

Phthalates get a lot of media mention because they’ve been detected in babies’ bodies via lotions and shampoos. Every day we are exposed to low doses of phthalates in food containers, perfumes, hairsprays, floorings, paints, toys and medical devices. These low doses may be toxic by mimicking and disrupting the body’s natural reproductive chemicals.

But according to the Phthalate Information Center, whose panel members include BASF Corporation, Eastman Chemical Company, ExxonMobil Chemical Company and Ferro Corporation, there’s no need to worry. The center calls these warnings “highly misleading” and brought by “anti-chemical lobbies.”

“The volatilized pollutants are detected by air-quality monitors in the salon,” says Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth. “But phthalates are hard to detect.”

The European Union is determined to make the world safer for longer-lasting pink glossy nails, and has banned two types of especially harmful phthalates. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) has offered SB 484, the California Safe Cosmetics Act, which requires nail polish companies to disclose information about any ingredients identified as causing cancer or birth defects. Additionally, SB 484 allows the California Occupational Health and Safety Agency (COSHA) to regulate the products if they consider them a risk to nail salon workers.

In 2006, Dibutyl phthalates, or DBPs, joined toluene and formaldehyde on California’s Proposition 65 list of suspected teratogens, or chemicals that cause disfiguring birth defects. The concerns over the toxicity of DBPs were so troubling that major cosmetics manufacturer OPI Products voluntarily stopped using them in its polishes, even though they were not required by the FDA to do so.

The key is exposure level. To any one person using nail polish at home, the exposure to the toxins is low. But where high exposures in the workplace are concerned, the federal Office and Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) regulates. “OSHA’s so-called “safe levels’ are really outdated,” explains Scranton. “What levels are allowed are set for an industrial setting, geared toward men in factories, not women of child-bearing age.”

The nail salon workers are caught unprotected in this regulatory web. The EPA began a program called Nail Salons Project Partners in Houston, Texas in 2001 to work with cosmetics companies and salons to find best management practices. The findings are published in English and Vietnamese. But best management practices only encourage handling techniques, like keeping products in properly labeled containers and wearing a mask and gloves.

“In the gap between OSHA and FDA, the population of nail salon workers has been glossed over. No one has looked at the health impacts,” says Scranton. “Legally it’s fine but no one has researched it. There are no epidemiological studies.”

Because these products are still unregulated and human health protection relies on the nail salon workers themselves, there are still alarming gaps. For example, the EPA recommends that salons not purchase or use any nail product containing liquid methyl methacrylate (MMA) monomer.

“In artificial nail products, MMA has technically been illegal since 1974 because it’s so toxic,” explains Scranton. “But because MMA is so much cheaper than the safer alternatives, we believe there is a black market for it.”


She is one of the estimated 155,000 people working in the U.S. as manicurists and pedicurists, according to a 2007 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, “Protecting the Health of Nail Salon Workers.” Of these practitioners, more than 95 percent are female and more than 40 percent are of Asian ethnicity, primarily Vietnamese. These women, on average, are 38 years old and married with children.