Are Nail Salon Chemicals Safe?

smiling african american woman having her nails done in a nail salon

Harmful chemicals may be endangering the health of nail salon patrons and workers, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California and Asian Health Services report finding unsafe levels of toluene, a solvent linked to neurological, reproductive, and endocrine damage, and other chemicals, including one that has been banned by the FDA since 1974. The study is published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Nail salon workers are at a heightened risk of health problems because they are exposed to the chemicals on a daily basis. However, Quach points out, the toxins are in the nail care products, which means that customers are exposed as well.

The research team recruited 80 salon clients and workers, at 20 different salons, to participate in the study. Each of them wore a monitor attached to a shirt or coat collar. The monitor would measure concentrations of toluene, ethyl acetate, and isopropyl acetate.

High Levels of Risky Chemical

The researchers found that the average toluene levels were 0.15 parts per million, nearly twice the amount recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for indoor air, according to the study.

In addition to the samples taken from the monitors, they also measured the ambient air in three of the salons being studied. They found notable levels of methyl methacrylate, which has been banned for decades.

Exposure Symptoms

Finally, the salon workers were given questionnaires, in which they were asked to identify any health symptoms they had experienced while working. The most frequent complaints common among salon workers included irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin, shortness of breath, nausea, and coughing.

“This really explains why we have been hearing about the health problems that they have,” study researcher Thu Quach, PhD, MPH, says.

A National Concern

While Quach’s study focused on salons in California, reports of adverse health effects have been a concern in other parts of the country, including the Pacific Northwest, Houston, and Boston.

“It’s definitely a national issue,” says Julia Liou, MPH, manager of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, an organization founded in 2005 to address the health and safety concerns among California salon workers. “We’re concerned about their cumulative, chronic, and long-term health problems.”

In addition to the acute symptoms, Quach is concerned about potential long-term health risks.

“I’m really very interested in following the long term health outcomes of these women.”