Nail Technicians’ Health & Workplace Exposure Control

Is working in a nail salon dangerous

Approximately 350,000 people are employed in nail salons and other personal care services in the United States according to industry estimates (Nails Magazine, 2008–2009). These estimates indicate the workforce is largely female (96%) with the industry employing a large number of minority workers (63%). Nail salon employees are potentially exposed to dozens of chemicals including acrylates, solvents, and biocides as dusts or vapors. A small but growing number of studies have examined possible links between nail technicians’ work and health outcomes, such as respiratory, neurological, and musculoskeletal effects, as well as other health conditions. Much of the NIOSH-sponsored research to-date has focused on the respiratory system. Concerns about job-related health effects associated with chemicals routinely used by nail technicians drew new attention on May 11, 2015, when Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced a new initiative to “prevent unlawful practices and unsafe working conditions” in New York nail salons, following the publication of a two-part investigative series in the New York Times.

Nail technicians perform manicures and may also perform pedicures. Manicures are performed over a workstation—or “nail table”—with the client’s hands resting on the table as they work. The nail table is, therefore, directly below the nail technicians’ breathing zone. Downdraft vented nail tables and portable source capture systems that place local exhaust ventilation close to the work area provide the means to vent (remove) potential dust or chemicals away from the breathing zone. Thus, theoretically, potential contaminants may be removed before they cross the breathing zone and are inhaled. Good general room ventilation is also important. There is some overlap in nail products and processes for manicures and pedicures. Exposures may differ, though, as pedicures involve processes such as soaking feet, filing calluses, and the use of pedicure work stations, but do not typically involve artificial nail application.

The NIOSH publication entitled Controlling Chemical Hazards During the Application of Artificial Fingernails (NIOSH Publication No. 99-112) describes simple measures to reduce exposures during artificial nail application, such as keeping dispensers closed and wearing long sleeves and gloves to protect skin from potential irritants and sensitizers. Information is also provided on engineering controls, such as how to build a downdraft vented nail table that vents to the outdoors, plus references to other sources of information.

View the Spanish version of this report.


NIOSH Report: An Evaluation of Local Exhaust Ventilation Systems for Controlling Hazardous Exposures in Nail Salons
EPHB Report No. 005-164

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a research project to examine the effectiveness of different portable source capture ventilation systems (SCVS) units with the potential for use in nail salons. Units received for evaluation in response to a Federal Register Notice featured local exhaust recirculation. With local exhaust recirculation, contaminated air is drawn through a filter and then vented it back into the room (for the NIOSH evaluation, however, air was vented into an exhaust system). The air intakes on these SCVS units could also be positioned so that contaminated air could be drawn into the unit before it crosses the breathing zone of the face. Airflow and capture characteristics of the units as well as the noise levels around them were evaluated.

Read more  How Often Should You Paint Your Nails? Get A Break From Nail Polish


NIOSHTIC-2 search results on manicurists and nail tables

NIOSHTIC-2 is a searchable bibliographic database of occupational safety and health publications, documents, grant reports, and journal articles based on research supported in whole or in part by NIOSH.

— Update: 01-05-2023 — found an additional article The Truth About Chemical Exposure in Nail Salons Is Worse Than You Might Think from the website for the keyword is working in a nail salon dangerous.

Anyone who has walked past a nail salon is familiar with the noxious odors that emanate from acrylic nails, polishes and removers. Customers getting manicures and pedicures endure the smell temporarily, but manicurists who inhale these evaporating chemicals for hours expose themselves to health risks.

The smells come from volatile organic compounds, or VOCs – compounds that easily become vapors or gases. These substances have been linked to health problems ranging from headaches and respiratory irritation to reproductive complications and cancer.

In a normal room-temperature environment, VOCs evaporate and humans breathe them in.

Our research team, along with colleagues at Colorado State University, recently investigated chemical exposures in six Colorado nail salons and found that employees spent their days exposed to high levels of VOCs.

Participating technicians, who had worked in salons for up to 19 years, reported suffering headaches and skin and eye irritation.

We measured levels of benzene and formaldehyde in the salons, and determined that exposure to these known human carcinogens was increasing the workers’ lifetime cancer risks above one in one million – the level that many US agencies consider acceptable in regulating exposure to harmful substances.

Identifying health hazards

A 2015 New York Times exposé highlighted underpayment and poor working conditions in New York nail salons. However, it failed to address chemical exposures that salon workers experience daily.

Several research groups have sought to characterize and quantify VOC exposures in the nail salon environment, using standard measurement techniques and self-reported health surveys.

Read more  How to Use Rubber Bands for Braces

Their research shows that nail salon workers are exposed to higher levels of VOCs than they would typically be expected to encounter in most homes, occupations or urban environments. As a result, these workers frequently experience work-related health symptoms.

Our study measured 10 VOCs, including the carcinogens benzene and formaldehyde. We found that VOC levels in the six salons where we monitored regularly exceeded common threshold levels for odor and inhalation risk.

In some cases this posed a significant risk of cancer over a 20-year exposure period.

Twenty workers answered questionnaires about their personal health. Among them, 70 percent reported some form of short-term health symptom related to their employment, while 40 percent reported multiple related symptoms.

We worked closely with salon owners to enlist volunteer nail technicians to participate. Having owners’ support was instrumental, since it allowed salon workers to accurately report on their health and working conditions without fear of reprisal.

Like working at an oil refinery

Many people view cosmetology as a relatively safe profession, but it isn’t. We found that exposures to aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes – collectively referred to as BTEX – resembled those previously reported in studies of oil refinery workers and auto garage technicians.

Our results aren’t unique. A 2018 Iranian study found similar concentrations of benzene, ethylbenzene, and xylene in Tehran beauty salons.

Another study conducted that year in Michigan found concentrations of toluene at over 100 parts per billion, which is roughly 30 times higher than reported urban outdoor levels.

Regulation of this kind of workplace exposure has not kept pace with science. Many US occupational safety and health exposure limits have not been updated for nearly 50 years.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, readily acknowledges that many of its permissible exposure limits are “outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health.”

OSHA offers only guidance and recommendations for businesses, effectively shifting the burden of worker protection onto private industry. This is especially problematic in the nail salon industry, where over 90 percent of salons are small businesses that employ fewer than 5 people and do not have safety personnel on staff.

Inadequate cosmetic product regulations and labeling requirements make it hard to know which products are actually safe. A 2012 study by the California Environmental Protection Agency found that 10 out of 12 nail products labeled “toluene free” still contained up to 17 percent toluene.

Products labeled free of the so-called “toxic three” ingredients – dibutyl phthalate or DBP, toluene and formaldehyde – actually contained greater concentrations of DBP, an endocrine-disrupting compound, than products that made no claims at all.

Read more  Texas hair salons, barbershops and other beauty businesses can reopen Friday. Here are the rules they have to follow.

Is working in a nail salon dangerousOptions for managing toxic exposures in the workplace. (OSHA)

Solving the problem

Owners often work in nail salons, so they generally support efforts to improve air quality inside their businesses. Those who we interviewed typically had some understanding of the problem and wanted to fix it, but didn’t always know how.

The US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and OSHA all publish healthy nail salon guides. Yet owners in our study had never heard of them – perhaps because the guides are only published in English, while many nail salon workers are Asian and Latino immigrants with limited English language skills.

Several grassroots community organizations have published guides to improving salons’ air quality in both Vietnamese and Chinese. These references discuss ventilation and use of personal protective equipment, which are paramount for mitigating chemical exposures in the workplace.

Small changes, such as running ventilation continuously, wearing nitrile gloves and utilizing proper charcoal face masks, can significantly reduce worker exposure.

Results from our most recent study also suggest that placing large activated carbon sinks in salons could effectively remove VOCs from the air. We are currently experimenting with embedding these chemical-absorbing materials into pieces of art that can hang on salon walls.

Another priority is conveying information to larger audiences and advocating for more safety training in cosmetology certification programs. Education and training are particularly important for ethnic minority groups.

Many workplace standards enforced by OSHA, such as those regulating exposure to toxic and hazardous substances, apply to nail salons. However, cosmetic manufacturers are not required to obtain federal approval for products or ingredients before they go on the market, or to file product information with the agency.

In contrast, California passed a bill in 2018 that will require manufacturers to provide ingredient labels on any professional cosmetic products manufactured after 1 July 2020 and sold in the state.

The campaign for this common-sense reform was largely led by advocacy groups like the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. Practical steps like this can improve conditions for workers who receive little attention but are exposed to serious health risks on the job every day. Is working in a nail salon dangerous

Lupita D. Montoya, Research Associate, Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering Department, University of Colorado Boulder and Aaron Lamplugh, Research Scientist, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.