Whenever I walk by nail salons or hair salons in malls, I often wonder about the tremendous health risks associated with visiting these establishments.

You really can’t help wondering, especially based on the odor coming out of these places even when you are not directly inside of them or in front of them. I know personally I have a hard time walking by these places, let alone walking in.

These thoughts drove me to a deeper question and that was… it is one thing for the customer to frequent such establishments from time to time and become exposed to all the toxic fumes and chemicals, but what about the actual workers?

In this article, I will be explaining today’s most popular nail salons, the latest results to come out from a new survey from the Northern California Cancer Center and Asian Health Services of Oakland, customer health risks and finishing off by focusing on why we insist on paying to get sick.

In today’s North American society, nail salons are a dime a dozen! So naturally the market has become infiltrated by lower end salons, ones which charge $10 to $20 for manicures and pedicures as opposed to the more traditional price of $50. Now how is that possible?

It is possible when you hire people who are usually refuges, can’t speak the language and come from poor countries, sometimes even “third world-like”.

Such is the case with the numerous Oriental, especially Vietnamese filled, nail salons, where the price is cheap, the service is usually good and the health effects are incalculable for both customer and worker – but especially the worker.

These lower end nail salons are today frequented by many men and women a like as they usually promote various services beyond just manicures. In them you will usually find, young Vietnamese or other Oriental girls, who work from morning till night, for minimum pay in a toxic environment!

Many of these young women are in their fertile years and have not even had their own babies yet and really have no say in the matter of their health. After all these are not the people who are going to be first in line to complain about their working conditions. They are often thrilled just to be in North America and have a job – that compared to some of their friends, may even seem very decent.

Some may argue that by supporting these establishments we are giving them a new opportunity in this country and money to survive. But how can you argue that when these women are acquiring all sorts of respiratory tract complications, never mind the cancers or the possible teratogenic effects to their unborn children?

Well finally someone decided to look deeper into this and investigate and the following survey presents the information gathered.

The Survey Results

According to a new survey from the Northern California Cancer Center and Asian Health Services of Oakland, the women who work in these nail salons suffer acute health effects from the chemicals that they work with each day.

This is the first survey of its kind as you can imagine the marginalized groups in our society do not get the same care and concern as the affluent, rich or famous groups. Aside from the fact that it is time to make this issue a national health concern not just for the workers but for the customers who use these services, it also begs the point of why are we allowed to use toxic products – period!

It is no surprise that there are health effects associated with nail chemicals as they have contained some of the worst toxins, especially where fumes are concerned since they were developed. And despite all the technology, no much has changed, so don’t go looking for “organic” or “natural” nail polish – you won’t find it. As Thu Quach, MPH, of the Northern California Cancer Center explained, “Nail care workers routinely handle products containing many potentially harmful compounds, some of which are carcinogens or have endocrine disrupting effects, yet are virtually unregulated.” Now how is that for the safety of our health?

Many toxic and potentially hazardous ingredients, including solvents, plasticizers, resins and acids, are commonly found in nail care products. The nail salon industry is recognized as one of the fastest growing in the United States. Of California’s more than 35,000 salons, the vast majority are owned or operated by Vietnamese women. In Canada the story is very similar.

The survey found that many of the women questioned reported having some health problems after they began working in the industry, particularly skin and eye irritation, breathing difficulties and headaches. And those are just the acute reports. What is happening inside of these women on a chronic or long term level, still remains to be seen. Unfortunately they are the first generation of workers who are the guinea pigs. So I would not be surprised to learn in the future that these women will have higher risks of cancers, fertility issues and other endocrine disruptions.

The best part of this study is that it is finally putting a spotlight on a situation that may otherwise have been overlooked for years since it deals with the minorities of our population. “Our findings highlight a critical need for further investigation into the breast cancer risk of nail salon workers, underscored by the workers’ routine use of carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, their prevalent health concerns about such chemicals, and their high level of acute health problems,” adds Thu Quach, MPH.

The full results of this survey are scheduled to appear in the October print issue of Journal of Community Health.

For more information, read this story from Women’s Voices for the Earth on the health risks related to Vietnamese nail salon workers that include some personal accounts and testimonies from some of these women.

Low-end versus High-end nail Salons

If you are wondering about the traditional higher end salons and their risk, there is a good reason why the low-end salons are getting so much attention and are at more risk.

In the higher-end salons, first and foremost the products used are of a much higher quality. And in some of these cases a better formulation translates to use of less-toxic chemicals.

In the lower-end salons, the cosmetics are as cheap as possible to keep the costs down. Therefore they can come from any source that will make them in the cheapest fashion possible, without any care or concern for health risks. After all a brand name label usually does have some sort of reputation to live up to.

For example, if you go to a higher-end salon for a typical French manicure or pedicure, it is done with nail polish by hand. If you get the same service at a lower-end salon, it is usually done as a spray on, which emits high amounts of toxic particulates into the air.

So if you are going to go ahead and feel that for whatever reason you absolutely have to have your nails done, I would suggest paying the extra cost and getting the less toxic treatment.

Personal Health Risks

Whether you are thinking of yourself or the workers, no body in today’s day and age should have to be subjected to these kinds of risks. And I know some may still argue that this is way better for these women than the lives they led back home. But how do two wrongs make a right?

On a personal note, you may also argue that your exposure to these chemicals is minimal compared to the women working there and so surely you will be fine. Well – to this we must always remember 2 things:

  1. You do not know what types of chemicals or mutations your body has a sensitivity or weakness to. Hence, one person may get multiple exposure doses and be fine, while another may end up with a cancer after only several exposures.
  2. These chemicals are just ONES of many that your body is subjected to on a daily basis in our world. So it would make more sense to minimize deliberate chemical exposure as much as possible to avoid cumulative toxic effects.

So Why Do You Need Your Nails Done?

A few articles ago I told you that I wear make up and introduced you to a company that deals with more natural and organic based makeup called FutureNatural. And yes, even though they do carry nail polish, I would still not buy it.

I do not and cannot remember the last time I wore nail polish or on a regular basis, never mind one that was colored. In fact I have never worn nail polish on a regular basis (hands or feet). People would always, and still do, tell me how nice my nails on my hands are…how white and how strong, etc. I am not surprised by this compliment and no it is not genetic. My nails are able to breathe regularly and do not get covered by toxins, so yes naturally they are going to be healthier overall.

I did try to use some clear nail polish on my toes in the summer and even had a French pedicure twice, but that was because I let society condition me into thinking that toe nails were “ugly” or “unsightly” and hence should be covered, especially for women. Well I am breaking out of that old conditioning and stopping with the toe nail polish too.

Are my toe nails perfect – no – and not even close to my hand nails as naturally they are covered up about 8 – 10 months out of the year. But I will invest more time into getting them to look healthier and tasteful naturally, not use a quick fix remedy for them.

So if there is one cosmetic that is the most toxic it would have to be the nail polish/nail polish remover combo. The fumes you generate from using these just inside of your homes should give you a clue to that. And will one time hurt – probably not. But think about regular and prolonged use over years. That may equate to some unexplained headaches, respiratory weaknesses and even worse cancers and endocrine disruptions. Remember – these products are not regulated and we are just starting to run tests as to their health and toxicity effects.

Hence to conclude, most of us want a nice and neat appearance, but we have to be aware also of the risks associated with that appearance if we attain it in a chemical way. So if you still think your nail polish is a must, try to think again and try to break out of society’s old conditioning as remember, they will not be the ones going through your pain and suffering should your health have to pay for it now or in the future.