Nail Salon Industry Slow to Clip Health Hazards

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Recent media has spotlighted the health care risks facing nail salon workers, as well as their customers.  Earlier this year, a series of New York Times articles uncovered poor working conditions in East Coast salons, and a reluctance from the cosmetics industry to label beauty supplies that may contain harmful chemicals.   

Dubbed the toxic trio, formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and toluene – which are in some nail polishes – pose health risks to workers and consumers alike, with the labor force exposed to potentially chronic threats.  Health dangers linked to the toxic trio include respiratory illnesses, asthma, dermatitis, breast cancer, and damage to reproductive organs. Language barriers make communicating these risks challenging.  Of the approximately 1,800 nail technicians that work in San Francisco, 80 percent are of Vietnamese origin. 

In response to the health hazards facing the industry, in 2005 the California Legislature passed the Safe Cosmetics Program Act (CSCP). Under the act, a Safe Cosmetics Program was created within the California Department of Public Health, responsible for maintaining a public database that catalogues harmful chemicals contained in beauty products. 

The CSCP was allotted $495,000 in fiscal year (FY) 2006, reduced to $268,212 this FY. According to Matt Conens, California Department of Public Health spokesperson, 55,388 unique cosmetic products sold in California contain one or more chemical ingredients known, or suspected to be, carcinogens or reproductive/developmental toxicants. 

In 2010 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program, under which businesses can become certified as healthy if they ban the toxic trio from their workplace. Just 25 of the City’s 200 nail salons have been certified under the program, according to Guillermo Rodriguez, San Francisco Department of the Environment policy and communications director. Only two of these are located in Southside San Francisco:   Zaza Nail Spa on Second Street, and Modern Nail Bar on 22nd Street. 

“The Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program hasn’t really created much change,” said Rachel Cheng, owner of Zaza Nail Spa. According to Cheng, consumers pay more for a manicure because of a salon’s location, not because of legislation.  

“SoMA is an up and coming area, with a lot of tech money, the market is much more forgiving than other areas of San Francisco, such as Pacific Heights, Marina, and Cow Hollow. Many nail salons in those areas have been there for thirty-plus years, and they set a different standard. Their prices are half as much ours,” she said.  

A manicure at Zazas costs $30.  Tiptoes Nail Spa, on De Haro Street, charges $17. Howard Hines, owner of Tiptoes, said his business applied to the healthy nail salon program, but noted that he never received a response from the Department of the Environment.   

“When it comes to changing the industry, I think the media plays a huge role, as well as large manufacturers such as OPI,” said Cheng. “I think people would definitely buy natural products if they made it. If a company like OPI sets a standard, then all of the smaller companies will follow suit.”

Julia Liou, cofounder of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, agreed with the latter sentiment, but believes the recognition program is a good start.  “I think the root of the issue is still the toxics, but for now I think the recognition program works. In the long term what needs to happen is ingredient disclosure legislation for manufacturers. They are exempt from doing that for professional products. A wide gap in policy allows for manufacturers not to label their products in salons, while they would otherwise be labeled at a store like Walgreens or Target.” 

According to Liou, salon owners worry about losing their customer base if they change their prices or products.  But a 2012 survey by the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative found that 95 percent of Californians support paying an additional dollar for healthier and safer nail products; 56 percent support paying three dollars or more. The same nail salon consumer survey showed that 59 percent of people were unaware of toxic chemicals in nail products; 83 percent had never heard of the toxic trio.