The High Price of Beauty
Tomi Tran works as a nail technician in Raleigh, North Carolina. She pays around $100 per week to rent a booth in a hair salon, buys all her polishes and supplies and finds her own clients, often giving free manicures at local malls and distributing fliers to drum up business. It's hard work, but Tran, 22, says it's heaven compared with her last salon job.
"It was basically a sweatshop," she explains. "I would feel lightheaded and get terrible headaches from the smell of the chemicals, and I was working around sixty-four hours a week, usually with no lunch breaks." The final straw came when Tran became sick with a stomach virus but her boss told her she would lose her job if she didn't come to work. "She told me I had to work, but I could rest in the back in between customers," she says. Tran decided to quit and risk going into business for herself so she could choose her own hours and avoid the acrylic nail products that made her so sick.
Tara Horton, 37, of Sanger, California, wishes she had dropped out of beauty school. "Out of the eleven of us training to do nails, one woman had a baby that was stillborn at eight months, and another was born all messed up with his bowels and intestinal tract on the outside of his body," she says. "I remember thinking that's a pretty high failure rate." Horton began working in salons and later lost two babies herself and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. "You just don't go from being a nonsmoking, healthy, active person to dying of cancer without asking why," she says. "Now, I realize, we were standing over those chemicals all day long."
Stories like Tran's and Horton's have become rampant as the nail salon industry has exploded in the past ten years, with the number of nail technicians in America jumping 374 percent to more than 380,000 nationwide, with women making up 96 percent of the industry workforce. But "no one is really looking at these folks," says Alexandra Gorman, director of science and research for Women's Voices for the Earth, an environmental justice organization in Missoula, Montana, who co-wrote its March report called Glossed Over: Health Hazards With Toxic Exposure in Nail Salons. "There's a major lack of studies, so these women are going to work and having symptoms, but the authorities are telling them they're fine."
In fact, the cosmetology industry uses more than 10,000 chemicals in its products, 89 percent of which have not been evaluated for safety, according to the nonprofit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which corrals available evidence in its Skin Deep database (cosmeticsdatabase.com). The polishes, acrylics and other products used in nail salons contain some twenty chemicals flagged as having "potential symptoms and health effects" by the Environmental Protection Agency. The list includes solvents like acetone, which may cause central nervous system depression, and ethyl methacrylate, linked to eye, skin and respiratory tract irritation. It also highlights chemicals banned by the European Union and since removed by international brands like OPI, Sally Hansen and Revlon. Those include formalin, which may cause asthma-like respiratory problems and cancer in high or prolonged doses, and toluene, a solvent with the potential to cause dizziness, headaches and liver and kidney damage. Perhaps most contentious of all is dibutyl phthalate, a plasticizer that makes nail polish more flexible. It has been linked to eye and upper respiratory system irritation and may be toxic to the reproductive system.
"Most kinds of house paint are less toxic than what you find in nail polish," says Cora Roelofs, ScD, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, whose research has documented acute health problems like skin irritations and asthma among nail salon workers in the Boston area. "Yet we still know very little about more serious health effects, nor do we understand how these chemicals interact with each other in the salon environment."
It's the lack of knowledge about nail polish's potential reproductive toxicity that's most chilling for advocates and salon workers. "We're seeing a substantial number of folks from the beauty industry who are concerned about whether they can work during their pregnancies," says John Meyer, MD, an assistant professor in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center. He responds to queries on a risk line run by the Connecticut Department of Health and estimates that the center receives seventy to 140 calls a year from concerned workers or their physicians. An analysis of a California occupational health hot line found that manicurists and cosmetologists were the third-largest occupational sector to call with pregnancy-related inquiries.
"Just because we don't know something is dangerous doesn't mean it's safe," says Mark Cullen, MD, director of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Yale University School of Medicine. "These are a class of chemicals where the data is incomplete but the concern is real." Studies show that when laboratory workers are exposed to similar solvents without proper ventilation, there is a small but increased risk for miscarriages and birth defects similar to fetal alcohol syndrome, explains Dr. Meyer. Meanwhile, most research on phthalates comes from animal studies, making it difficult to predict human response.