Act First Safety

The Price of Perfect Nails

They may not look like dangerous worksites, but nail salons are coming under scrutiny as researchers sound the alarm about the constant exposure to hazardous chemicals suffered by manicurists and the inadequate protections afforded them. One problem is that most products used by manicurists, such as nail polish, gels, and acrylic nails, are classified as consumer products, not industrial chemicals, and therefore allowable levels of potentially harmful components are based on typical occasional consumer use, not constant exposure by workers. Further, many of these chemicals have been inadequately studied and cosmetic products are often not even labelled with ingredients.

Manicurists are constantly inhaling chemical fumes and dust from applying and filing these products, and are also exposed through skin contact. To make matters worse, many are young women of childbearing age, potentially putting their pregnancies at risk as well. People in this industry have been shown to have increased rates of asthma, chronic cough and other respiratory problems (with the dust from acrylic nails being especially harmful); skin irritation and diseases; reproductive problems including miscarriage and abnormal fetal development; and some kinds of cancer.

The toxic trio
The chemicals of greatest concern in nail products have been called “The Toxic Trio.” These are, among other dangers, endocrine disruptors (EDCs) which, by interfering with the body’s normal processes, can have developmental, carcinogenic, mutagenic, immunotoxicological, and neurotoxical effects at very low concentrations. EDCs are found in a range of nail salon products: toluene in nail polishes; acetone in nail polish remover; and parabens and phthalates also in nail polishes.

Toluene is a solvent used in many nail products such as finger nail glue, nail polish and polish thinner. A known EDC, it is rapidly absorbed when inhaled and also passes through the skin into the bloodstream. It is transmitted from the placenta to a developing fetus and is linked to birth defects. Liver and kidney toxicity, miscarriage, and a galaxy of symptoms such as confusion, light-headedness and nausea have all been linked to toluene.

Phthalates are found in nail polish, sealant, and top and base coats. Phthalates are known to trigger asthma and are irritating to the eyes, nose and throat. They are linked to negative brain effects (difficulty remembering/concentrating) and to malformation of the reproductive tract.

Formaldehyde, found in some disinfectants and nail polish, is a known carcinogen. It can also cause watery and burning eyes, coughing and wheezing, and skin dermatitis.

How to Protect Workers

In Europe, many of these chemicals are banned from use in cosmetics, and it is very likely Canadian regulations will be reviewed and strengthened in the near future. But salon owners and workers should not wait to take action to reduce the risk:

• Switch to products free of the “toxic trio” chemicals whenever possible.
• Ventilate work areas well, by opening windows and doors and ideally by installing and using local ventilation systems at work stations. Ventilation systems are especially important at stations where acrylic nails are applied and shaped.
• Wear personal protections: manicurists should wear long sleeves, nitrile gloves, and N95 masks (not just surgical masks) to trap dust and particulate matter.

More research is required on the effects of chemical exposure in the workplace especially for women.

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