Are California nail salons safe for workers?

Thuy Vo polishes nails at Queen Nails in Brea in 2012.

Thuy Vo polishes nails at Queen Nails in Brea in 2012.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

So how safe are working conditions at nail salons in California?

Some are asking that question after much-discussed stories in the New York Times this week examining working conditions and safety at New York nail salons.

California activists and health officials have been examining the chemicals used in nail salons for nearly a decade.

A 2012 California Department of Toxic Substances Control study found toxic chemicals in several nail products that had claimed to be toxic-free.


As the Los Angeles Times reported then:

The study, based on a small sample of products from Bay Area distributors, focused on three chemicals known as the “toxic trio”: formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate. Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to cancer and birth defects, according to the state.

There are roughly 120,000 licensed nail technicians in 48,000 salons across the state. About four in five are Vietnamese women. Their health has long been an important issue for advocates, who say salon employees work long hours in hazardous conditions and suffer health problems as a result.

Workers have more headaches, respiratory problems and skin irritations than the general population and are exposed to chemicals at higher than recommended levels, according to research in scientific journals. Now, safety issues in nail salons are attracting closer attention from state officials.
That same year, San Francisco adopted an ordinance that gave official city recognition to salons that use toxic-free products.


Last year, Alameda County created a program that recognized nail salons that used healthier products.

The state also agreed to review a host of consumer products that contain chemicals, and nail polish is one.

But some activists have sought more aggressive regulations, which some nail salon owners have opposed.

A report from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration outlined some of the chemicals used in nail salons that can cause health issues for workers:


* Acetone (nail polish remover): headaches; dizziness and irritated eyes, skin and throat

* Acetonitrile (fingernail glue remover): irritated nose and throat; breathing problems; nausea; vomiting; weakness and exhaustion

* Butyl acetate (nail polish, nail polish remover): headaches and irritated eyes, skin, nose, mouth and throat

* Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), (nail polish): nausea and irritated eyes, skin, nose, mouth and throat. Long-term exposures to high concentrations may cause other serious effects.


* Ethyl acetate (nail polish, nail polish remover, fingernail glue): irritated eyes, stomach, skin, nose, mouth and throat. High levels can cause fainting.

* Ethyl methacrylate (EMA), (artificial nail liquid): asthma; irritated eyes, skin, nose and mouth; difficulty concentrating. Exposures while pregnant may affect the fetus.

* Formaldehyde (nail polish, nail hardener): difficulty breathing, including coughing, asthma-like attacks and wheezing; allergic reactions; irritated eyes, skin and throat. Formaldehyde can cause cancer.

* Isopropyl acetate (nail polish, nail polish remover): sleepiness and irritated eyes, nose and throat


* Methacrylic acid (nail primer): skin burns and irritated eyes, skin, nose, mouth and throat. At higher concentrations, this chemical can cause difficulty breathing.

* Methyl methacrylate (MMA), (artificial nail products, though banned for use in many states): asthma; irritated eyes, skin, nose and mouth; difficulty concentrating; loss of smell

* Quaternary ammonium compounds (disinfectants): irritated skin and nose and may cause asthma

* Toluene (nail polish, fingernail glue): dry or cracked skin; headaches, dizziness and numbness; irritated eyes, nose, throat and lungs; damage to liver and kidneys; and harm to fetuses during pregnancy.