Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians and Chinese applied pigment to their nails to convey social status. Today, women visit the nail salon to mark a celebration or to simply retreat from life’s hectic pace. But many devotees of this ancient beauty ritual don’t realize that the chemicals used in the modern-day mani/pedi can be harmful—especially to the nail industry’s largely immigrant female workforce.
For years, manicurist and salon owner Tina Bui suffered from headaches, allergies, skin irritation, and depression, but she didn’t make the connection between her symptoms and the chemicals she had been working with every day for the previous 17 years. Then she sat through a training session with the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. The organization has worked to inform manicurists about the chemicals found in products like nail polish, polish removers, gels, powders, and acrylics and to educate them in the proper use of masks, gloves, and ventilation systems.
“I didn’t know how unhealthy and harmful the products were,” says Bui, who, like 40 percent of the manicurists in the United States, emigrated from Vietnam and got into the nail business because of its low barrier to entry.
Unfortunately, there are few alternatives. The handful of nontoxic products are too expensive for her customers, says Bui. Certain manufacturers have stopped using the so-called toxic trio—toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP)—chemicals that have been linked to cancer and reproductive harm. Yet others continue to use them and are free to sell their products without listing the ingredients. “We have an industry that by definition is based on certain chemical building blocks that we know are hazardous to human health,” says Anuja Mendiratta, cofounder of the healthy-nail collaborative and an environmental health consultant.
Meanwhile, some consumers like Justyn Lezin, 41, of Oakland, California, don’t mind paying extra for a “green” manicure. “That’s the reason I’ve gotten them more frequently, because I feel better about getting them,” she says.
Full Disclosure? Far from It
Slowing the effort to improve safety for industry workers is the legal loophole that exempts manufacturers from listing the ingredients—even hazardous chemicals—on products like nail polish. The Safe Cosmetics Act would require “ingredients of concern” to be disclosed on either the product label or the manufacturer’s website. So far, the bill has 26 cosponsors, and it is likely to be reintroduced in Congress, says Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at the environmental health advocacy organization Women’s Voices for the Earth. “This would close that loophole and guarantee better access to information,” she says.