Our Work


You can’t imagine how many chemicals are being used by workers in nail salons everyday.
Most do not have any knowledge about the health hazards of the products they are using.

–Connie Nguyen, cosmetologist


The Issue At Hand...


The beauty industry in the United States is booming. Manis, pedis, and hair treatments are all the rage, and customers want to be pampered with the latest nail designs, colors, and styles.  Yet even as demand for salon services has grown, little attention has been paid to the impact of occupational exposures on low-waged workers in this sector.

On a daily basis and often for long hours at a stretch, nail and beauty salon technicians – most of whom are women of reproductive age – handle solvents, glues, polishes, dyes, straightening solutions and other nail and beauty care products, containing a multitude of unregulated chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer, allergies, respiratory illnesses, neurological and reproductive harm.

More than 250,000 businesses in the US are currently classified as beauty salons with a workforce topping 845,000 individuals employed in the sector. About 44% percent of all barbers, cosmetologists, and other personal appearance workers are self-employed.  The median hourly wage – including tips and commission – for hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists was $11.13 in May 2008, with the middle 50% earning between $8.57 and $15.03 and the lowest 10% earning less than $7.47. 

In the last decade, the number of nail technicians has jumped 374% to more than 380,000 nationwide, with women making up to 96% of the industry’s workforce. The majority of nail salon workers are women of color, an estimated 42% nationwide are Asian immigrants, and most are of reproductive age.  One in five manicurists work in California, where up to 80% are Vietnamese women. Many salon workers speak limited English and lack an understanding of labor laws and access to the regulatory, legal and health care systems.  Most earn less than $19,000 a year, lack health insurance and work in conditions that can be hazardous to their health. 

Salon workers are particularly at risk for exposure, as they often work in poorly ventilated, small workspaces and with little, if any protective equipment.  The products they use are poorly labeled and although product manufacturers are required to provide information about proper handling techniques, they often fail to do so.

Despite such occupational exposures, there is very limited federal regulation and oversight of the chemicals used in professional salon products. It is currently legal for cosmetics manufacturers to use unlimited amounts of virtually any ingredient in salon and professional use products – including chemicals linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental harm, hormone disruption and other adverse health impacts – with no premarket safety assessment.   Of the more than 12,000 chemicals used in personal care and nail products, 89 percent have not been tested independently for their safety or impact on human health before entering the marketplace. 

Three chemicals of particular concern in nail products (dubbed the “Toxic Trio”) are toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate (DBP).  Toluene creates a smooth finish across the nail and keeps the pigment from separating in the bottle, and is a common volatile solvent that can impact the central nervous system, cause irritation of the eyes, throat and lungs, and is also a possible reproductive toxin.  Formaldehyde, a nail-hardening agent, is also a volatile chemical that evaporates into the air of salons and is known to cause cancer. Exposure to DBP, added to polishes to provide flexibility and a moisturizing sheen, can affect thyroid function has been linked to reproductive problems and decreased sperm count in adult men.

Women working in nail and beauty salons are increasingly reporting health concerns such as headaches, skin rashes and difficulty breathing, in addition to more serious problems including birth defects, cancers and respiratory illnesses, which may be linked to specific chemicals (or a combination of chemicals) found in nail and beauty care products.  While acute health affects in salons have been well-documented, additional research is needed on the long-term, chronic health impacts resulting from occupational exposures of salon workers.

Given the health and safety issues facing the salon workforce, advocates, nail salon workers and owners, scientists, allies in government agencies and others from across the country are increasingly coming together to develop a multifaceted platform to reduce occupational exposure to harmful chemicals in salons and to advocate for stronger laws.  The good news is that certain nail polish manufacturers are beginning to reformulate their products to remove some of the toxic chemicals like the Toxic Trio: as of February 2012, manufacturers of the Brazilian Blowout hair treatment are now legally required to carry warning labels for formaldehyde on their products.  Across the country, nail and beauty salon workers are also proactively working to lessen their exposure to chemicals from nail care products and to advocate for safer products and stronger laws and regulations to protect the workforce. 

Together, we are building a powerful movement for healthy, green, and safe beauty and nail salons.