Toxic Nail Salons: Why Your Nail Polish Color Could be the Next Agent Orange

"Pick a color!" a pretty, 38-year-old woman named Pong orders, as I enter Tower Nails, a typical Bay Area nail salon owned and staffed by Vietnamese immigrants of childbearing age.

Reds, corals, pinks, creams, blacks, blues, even Kelly greens. Selecting a polish can be as stimulating as shopping for baby names, a fun and serotonin-releasing, female preoccupation witnessed as early as the teenage years. Perhaps that explains the huge proliferation of the affordable walk-in salons -- the number of nail salons in California has tripled in the last two decades. The overwhelming majority of the workers are Asian immigrants, and of the 300,000 nail salon workers in the state, 80 percent are Vietnamese. And these women, and perhaps even their customers, may be at risk from a toxic cocktail of chemicals.

The biggest concern is the trio of toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) found in most base and top coats and polishes. This combination of chemicals has been linked to cancer, birth defects and skin rashes, especially with frequent exposure. Women in America need to ask themselves, are they picking their color or their poison?

The good news is that trips to the salon don't have to be toxic. There are readily available, safe products like Go Natural polishes and removers. But so far, for most salon workers and customers, convention has superseded the health of women.

Convincing the $35 billion cosmetics industry to voluntarily commit to reformulating its products is proving harder than getting squeezed in for a last minute mani-pedi appointment at noon on a Saturday.

Instead, the industry produces more 6,000 new chemical compounds each year and spends hundreds of thousands of dollars successfully lobbying against legislation to ban dangerous chemicals sold in states like California.

It is a different story in Europe, which has banned all phthalates from its cosmetics. The model in the European Union has been to prove that products are safe before they are allowed on the market. It's the opposite in the U.S., where we have to prove a product is harmful in order to see regulatory action.

Protecting Workers

How do we protect those most at risk? As the salon business continues to expand, the burden falls on state advocates to educate salon workers and lobby for an industry-wide polish change.

"In the last three years, there have been more organizations with outreach trying to inform manicurists of the dangers, but the education is only happening in pockets of the country rather than a unified campaign," explains Momo Chang, an Oakland, California writer who has investigated the dangers posed to Vietnamese salon workers.

Five years ago, Chang began exposing the dangers to Vietnamese salon workers who reported high cases of chronic asthma, fungal infections, skin rashes and miscarriages among their co-workers. One of these women had a toddler born with a digestive disorder requiring gastric surgery and feeding through a tube, a condition linked to his mother's frequent exposure to salon chemicals throughout her pregnancy.

"Much of mainstream media's focus has been on regulating immigrant-owned discount salons that are portrayed as unhygienic, yet there has been virtually no mention of health risks to the 1.2 million cosmetologists in the United States, many of whom are recent immigrants," observes Chang.

In 2006, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law requiring salons to clean up their acts to prevent bacteria leading to tuberculosis and staph infections, as well as other fungus-related sickness.

But the bill did not address exposure to toxic chemicals. That's why the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative was created. Backed by Asian Health Services, an Oakland-based community health clinic, much of the collaborative's work is aimed at informing non-English speaking workers who are at a great disadvantage when it comes to accessing and understanding information on chemical health risks and prevention.

"Although some regulatory agencies are starting to translate their information into Vietnamese and other languages, they don't have a lot of resources to do it, so a big communication gap remains," explains spokesperson Julia Liou. Working together with other health and women's rights activists, the collaborative seeks not only more regulation but action on the part of manufacturers to rid their potions of the solvents, glues and poisons now linked to illnesses from long-term exposure.

Liou says OPI, Sally Hansen, Zoya and the water-based Acquarella are a few of the companies committed to healthy change. The water-based alternative, used at some emerging, higher-priced, green salons in the Bay Area, have had a mixed reaction since the finishes may not last as long as the conventional products. But at least it is a step in the right direction.

"There has been some movement, but it is hard for consumers to always know what is free of the trio [of harmful chemicals] because sometimes it is taken out of a few summer shades but not from the winter ones," says Liou. "Our goal is for all companies to eliminate the trio, as well as other dangerous chemicals in their products." Those other dangers include fumes from acetone, acrylics and disinfectants. Advocates argue since the nail cosmetics are neither food we eat nor air we breathe, monitoring of this group of products lies in a "nebulous zone."

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can only regulate salons with more than nine employees, so the more common smaller ones often fall through the cracks. To get government protection, these workers must report a problem to the state, and most are reluctant to risk losing their bread and butter and facing retaliation from employers or other employees.

"Our approach is prevention and targeting the root cause -- the manufacturing industry -- so salon workers don't have to choose between their health and their livelihood," says Liou.

These workers have carved a niche working long, tedious hours to support their families in an industry that tolerates a low level of education and broken English. Chang likens the salons to Chinese laundromats of the 1800s in offering a good, affordable business to Asian immigrants seeking the American dream.

The new dream translates into catering to the seemingly endless stream of women seeking instant grooming, a shade to match their dress for that party, a hot new color for baring their toes for summer sandals, acrylics to cover a nasty biting habit. That population is no longer limited to adults: Kids, tweens and teens who often accompany their mothers on a bonding salon outing might also be at risk, depending upon their exposure.

"It's a concern because while we know about many of the dangers from the chemicals, there is still a lot we don't know about some of them," explains Chang. "The average client might go in once every two weeks, but the workers are there five to seven days a week, sometimes up to ten hours, and their exposure is a lot higher."

One beacon of hope may be the fashion world's proclivity to jump on the green bandwagon for marketing purposes, cashing in on the growing consumer demand for healthier, plant-based products. It truly is up to the industry to take the helm, and for consumers to demand it. It is a health issue we can no longer ignore.

To find out more, manicurists and their families can read reports such as "Underexposed and Informed," a 2009 report and policy agenda published by the California Nail Salon Collaborative.

It warns: "In addition to being subject to an array of occupational health hazards, many workers and employees do not have access to affordable medical care which can mean forgoing treatment for a job-related illness or for consultation on the risks of continuing to work during pregnancy. At the same time there is insufficient surveillance of occupational-related illnesses, including those related to nail salons."

Salon customers in America should also read these reports, heed the warnings and demand immediate change in the industry we have made mega-rich. Or, we can be led like sheep to the parlor. What would you do if you knew the color you just chose might be the next Agent Orange?

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