Under the searing lights of your local nail salon, looks really do kill. New York Times readers may have been stunned to learn last week that their glamorous fingertips may have imprinted their manicurist’s body with scarred windpipes and throbbing headaches. But the source of this toxicity has long hidden in plain sight beneath the veneer of the cosmetics industry.
Beauty product manufacturers pump poison onto the market every day, and among the first to absorb these chemicals are the women doing the most unglamorous work: The Times revealed that New York’s nail salon workers often spend 12 hours a day immersed in a chemical haze without protective masks or gloves. As part of a saloncare workforce of more than one million, their bodies form the frontlines of a scarcely regulated but heavily profitable global production chain.
For nail technicians especially (about 375,000 nationwide), the chronic health effects disproportionately hit women of color, a large portion of them Asian immigrants. Typically earning about $18,000 a year, many are undocumented workers stuck in coercive labor arrangements, sometimes virtual indentured servitude. That means no talking back when the boss insists that you work without a mask or fires you for fainting at work. They’re less likely to have access to decent healthcare, despite facing elevated chemical risks.
A study by Women’s Voices for the Earth outlines research on the potential health effects of salon work:
A study in Colorado documented that…doing work in hairstyling or applying artificial nails significantly increased the risk of being diagnosed with asthma. Manicurists applying artificial nails were also found to have a three-fold increased risk of exacerbation of their asthma at work.
Research on nail salon workers in Boston and South Korea also point to an elevated risk of respiratory problems like nasal and throat irritation, and the chemicals involved in the job are known to harm reproductive health.
Health surveys of Vietnamese immigrant nail salon workers in California reveal how socioeconomic barriers intersect with health threats: Most of them were of childbearing age with limited English proficiency, and in interviews with researchers they discussed feeling tremendous stress on the job along with physical symptoms like “Allergies, nose, eye, and throat irritations, chronic pains, skin irritation, and coughing,” and ergonomic bodily strains. One worker talked about fear of incurring medical costs if they got sick: “I do not buy medicine or go to see the doctors unless it is really serious.”