Under current federal regulations, cosmetics manufacturers can 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. Workers can and should be better protected from exposure to toxic chemicals in their workplaces.



How many times have you heard that nail lacquer or the hand cream you love is toxic and bad for your health?  Have you ever paid attention to whether your hand creams really do anything positive for your skin and most of all, have you noticed if you buy products that smell yummy or tropical over those that are actually safe and effective?

And how many times have you thought to yourself, I feel fine, I’m not one of those people suffering from cosmetic poisoning, or I don’t use a lot of products so I don’t need to worry?  If this is your current state of thinking, let me help you understand why that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I am a manicurist by trade and  became known as the local expert on real hand & nail care early on in my 12 year career.  When others were learning about what colors were in the next seasonal collection or what was the latest in acrylic or gel nails, I was learning about the health of the skin and nails.  The things real hand and foot care are about.

After my own toxic experience, I also learned  about cosmetic toxicity, something that is dangerously real and its effects aren’t something that happen overnight, they slowly creep up on us.  It take years for most of us to feel it and when the toxins have built up enough to finally devastate our body’s systems, the results are just that…devastating.

Many of us visit spas alone or with a friend or loved one.  We go for what we call maintenance, relaxation and even therapeutic reasons.  Most spa services are those we receive typically once a month  such as hair treatments, massage,  facials and pedicures.

Manicures…the Most Frequent & the Most Toxic

Manicures are the one treatment often received on a weekly basis both alone and with friends.  Manicures are big business now as we can see by the growing trends of parties and events likeMartinis and Manicures popping up across the Nation. It’s a way for women to unwind, have a drink and hang out with the girls midway through a busy week or as the week ends.

I attended one such event as an observer many months ago and was shocked at how many women attend such events.  Having checked out the products being used, I was more shocked at how these women were essentially toasting to toxins. Yes, paying for their poison in a fancy bar instead of the salon.

We all want our nails to look good and  be healthy but we forget about our hands in the midst of getting caught up in what color were going to have applied in the end.

Good Hand and Nail Health require much more than meets the eye and most products and most salons are not measuring up.  Some really don’t even want you to know that what they’re doing is actually damaging your nails, aging your skin and even adding to your poor health.


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One very popular spa brand for hand, foot and nail products offers products that are 70% organic, (it’s noted on the label) but the remaining ingredients are toxic and synthetic.  This makes the good ingredients pointless and ineffective.  One particular product contains both citric acid and sodium benzoate in the ingredients and even in small doses, these two ingredients have a chemical reaction that forms benzene, a known human carcinogen linked to Leukemia.  Benzene is an industrial solvent and is commonly used in the printing industry.


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There are two kind of nail lacquers, one is an emulsion resin based lacquered (water) and the other is nitrocellulose based (solvent).  Most lacquers used in spas are solvent based.  Although many companies have removed formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalates  also known as the “toxic trio” from their solvent based lacquer, they are nonetheless still highly toxic.  Don’t be deceived when a manicurist tries to tell you it’s better because its VEGAN or doesn’t have the TOXIC TRIO because that is far from the truth.

So What’s the Problem With This?

Well, the problem is that cosmetic poisoning happens over time.  Every time you have a manicure, your nails and the skin or your arms and hands are taking on and absorbing these toxic chemicals and they are being stored in your body’s fatty tissues and congesting your internal organs causing them to function less optimally until they are so overwhelmed like mine were that they can no longer operate and your entire body falls ill.  In many cases cancer is a great option and not one we care to experience.

During the course of your manicure, you are also inhaling these products vapors which are equally as toxic.  Inhalation of many products such as removers, lacquers or even highly fragranced products can add to neurotoxicity and respiratory problems and cause asthma or headaches and migraines you wouldn’t think to link to your products or the spa.


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There is a growing concern for women who plan to become pregnant or are pregnant who are exposed to toxic products during hand and nail treatments.   Between 1989 and Dec 2009, many reports or studies have been done on women who work in the beauty industry, the nail department particularly regarding their health. A summary of those reports are as follows:

1. An analysis (1989) of calls to a California occupational hazard hotline demonstrated that nail salon workers are concerned about the impacts of their work on their health, particularly as it relates to effects on pregnancy.  The analysis found that manicurists and cosmetologists were the third largest occupational sector to make pregnancy-related inquiries to the hotline.The chemical most often asked about by manicurists were acrylates (artificial nail liquids).*Because of the toxic effects and linked or suspected birth defects, many doctors advise women to remove artificial nails if they are pregnant.

2. A study (1994) carried out in North Carolina found an increased risk of spontaneous abortion among cosmetologists in salons where manicuring or “nail sculpturing” was performed. This study did not include women who frequent nail salons or spas but my guess is that if they are regular clients (weekly), they are also at increased risk.

3. A study (1997) in Colorado found six physician-diagnosed cases of occupational asthma in nail technicians who applied acrylic nails.

4. One study (1999) looking at occupational causes of cancer found that cosmetologists were at higher risk for Hodgkin’s disease.

5. Another study (2001) looked at self-reported cognitive symptoms in nail salon workers.  The findings show that nail salon workers had greater complaints about memory and learning.

6. In a (2002) study, nail technicians were found to have greater problems with attention and cognitive processing, and lesser sense of smell than control subjects.  Length of time worked in the industry as well as having a smaller workplace and inadequate ventilation was associated with greater severity of these symptoms.

7. Additional studies (2006) have been conducted that document nail technicians’ self-reported health effects in nail salons and an awareness that their occupation was affecting their health. A majority of those surveyed responded that there were odors at work that make them feel bad, gave them work-related headaches, skin problems, and respiratory problems.

8. WASHINGTON, D.C. (Dec 2009)– Laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Rachel’s Network have detected synthetic fragrance chemicals for the first time in the umbilical cord blood of U.S. newborns. The findings provide hard evidence that U.S. infants are contaminated with toxic chemicals used in cosmetics and other consumer products beginning in the womb.

I highlight these cases to show that there is indeed a toxic problem and it is not exclusive to just those performing the services although the studies did not include clients, at least not yet.  Every time you visit a facility as a client, you expose yourself to these toxins and in many cases you purchase products such as hand creams and nail lacquers to take home so the chemical exposure continues beyond that one appointment, you are bringing them home with you.


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Most nail polishes are made of nitrocellulose dissolved in a solvent (e.g. butyl acetate or ethyl acetate) and either left clear or colored with various pigments. Basic components included are: film forming agents, resins and plasticizers, solvents, and coloring agents. Adhesive polymers (e.g. tosylamide-formaldehyde resin) ensure the nitrocellulose adheres to the nail’s surface. Plasticizers (e.g. camphor) are chemicals that link between polymer chains, spacing them to make the film sufficiently flexible after drying. Pigments and sparkling particles (e.g. mica) add desired color and reflecting characteristics. Thickening agents (e.g. stearalkonium hectorite) are added to maintain the sparkling particles in suspension while in the bottle. Ultraviolet stabilizers (e.g. benozophenone-1) resist color changes when the dry film is exposed to direct sunlight. Nail polish ingredients often include toluene. Solvents such as toluene and xylene are petroleum-based products that have been linked to cancer. Formaldehyde (also called formalin) may cause allergic reactions in some people and is unsafe for use by asthmatic people. It is a carcinogen.

Nail polish makers are under pressure to reduce or eliminate potentially toxic ingredients, including phthalates, toluene, andformaldehyde.[3][4] In September 2006, several makers agreed to phase out dibutyl phthalate, which has been linked to testicular problems in lab animals and humans, in updated formulations.[4] Though some makers recently agreed to eliminate formaldehyde from their products, others still use the chemical.[3]

A recent development (ca. 2003) is water-based nail polish, which is based on a polymer emulsion (e.g. styrene-acrylate copolymer), and pigments similar to those used in watercolor paints.[citation needed] This is marketed as a more environmentally-conscious product, since nail polish is considered a hazardous waste by some regulatory bodies (e.g. Los Angeles Department of Public Works).[5] In this application, the solvent (water) does not completely evaporate as in the case of the traditional nail polish; part of the water is absorbed through the fingernail.

Wikipedia Nail Polish

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About three weeks ago I was with my daughter and we decided to get a pedicure at a local salon in Minneapolis. We had both been there before, and had no reason to be concerned about any issues of safety or health.

After we had our pedicure they gave us a good offer on a full set of nails, so we decided “why not”, and said okay. I used to wear artificial nails when I was working, but about ten years ago I decided it was an expensive habit. This was an Asian run salon, and I was amazed at how reasonable their prices were. A full set was only $25, and a fill ran $16. Normally you can just about double the price at any other type of salon, so “I was getting a good deal?” Right? Please read on.

I noticed the first couple of days my nails were very sore. At that point I just assumed it was because I had not worn them for so long, and it would stop. Several days later, the discomfort cleared up, and I must say how pleased I was with the appearance of my nails and how durable they were.
A few days ago it seemed kind of ridiculous to bother with them and I went to Wal-Mart to get some acetone nail polish remover. This is the standard way to loosen the nails, and after about 20 minutes of soaking, they will just slide off. Well, I wasn’t having much success. I sat for an hour soaking just my right hands nails, and they were not coming off. They did not even budge! Well, I checked to make sure that I had purchased the correct type of remover, and yes I had. At this point I called a couple of nail salons, and they suggested I get some acetone from the hardware store. I tried that for a short time, but the health warnings were so strong about this product that I decided to scratch the idea. I will say with serious pulling, I got one nail off, and it took about two hours.
What was I going to do? What was causing this? Never had this happened to me before and I was not only mad, but also very worried. I contacted a very reputable nail salon, told them my story about having my nails done in an Asian salon in Minneapolis, and she informed me the reason the nails would not come off was due to an illegal product that is widespread in these cheaper salons called MMA. The FDA determined Methyl Methacrylate in the 1970’s as “poisonous and deleterious”. A specific company that was producing the product was halted by a court injunction. This product was originally used to make dentures, so you can understand the holding power of MMA, and why you do not want it on your nails.

The reason they can offer you a set of nails at half the price, is that this liquid used along with the powder cost less than $25 per gallon. On the other side, reputable nail salons use a totally different product that cost at least $125 per gallon.

So what are the health risks to you by exposing yourself to this product. Well, first of all, it damages your natural nails in a very short time. Mine look like they have had artificial nails for 10 years and not 3 weeks. Additionally, skin allergies are a major problem, nail infections, heart valve damage. Also the toxic MMA fumes are known to cause lung and heart damage.
This is a very serious problem, and most people do not even know that they are being exposed to it. Frankly the idea of getting your nails done for half the normal price is so tempting, and the MMA information is just now becoming a public issue again, most clients have no clue.
So how you protect yourself? First of all do not go to a “cheap” shop. Then watch if the nail techs are wearing masks. Are they using a drill to file and remove these nails? Are your nails uncomfortable after your manicure, and of course if you try to remove them, and they will not come off, you have had a set of MMA nails.
I still cannot get them off, and will most likely have to let them grow out, and then trim them as they grow. There is no knowing way to get rid of them with the exception of drilling them off. This can cause serious problems to your nail bed.
Having beautiful nails is a real enjoyment, but be careful what products are used in your nail treatment because you might end up like me.

Tierra Mia Organic Nail Spa


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During the 13 years that Connie Nguyen has worked in Bay Area nail salons, she’s seen numerous friends and co-workers become ill. She, too, has come down with mysterious skin rashes and respiratory problems. A few years ago, experiencing shortness of breath, she went to the doctor.

“The X-ray technician asked me if I’d been smoking a long time,” said Nguyen, 48. “It shocked me. I have never smoked in my life.”

Amid a booming beauty industry, California’s legions of nail salon workers – most of them Asian immigrant women – are being exposed to hazardous chemicals in cosmetic products, chemicals that have largely gone unregulated because state law exempts cosmetics and personal care products.

With evidence mounting that prolonged exposure to chemicals is putting these vulnerable workers at risk for a host of health problems, state Sen. Carole Migden held a legislative hearing Thursday in San Francisco to begin assessing perils in salons. Her purpose was to establish what the state can do to protect salon workers.

“Every day, nail salon workers are exposed to a wide array of carcinogenic chemicals,” said Migden, a San Francisco Democrat who heads the Senate’s Labor and Industrial Relations Committee. She noted that some of the products routinely used in the state’s thousands of nail and beauty salons are banned in Europe.

Nail salons garnered headlines in recent years after scores of customers around the state became ill from bacterial infections, many stemming from dirty footbaths after pedicures. A law, authored by then-Assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), now a state senator, went into effect last year tightening controls and imposing penalties on salons found to be using unsanitary practices.

But even though the number of nail salons in California has more than tripled during the last two decades, little research has been done on the health effects to the state’s salon workers, many of them in childbearing years, from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Various experts testified during the packed 21/2-hour hearing at City Hall that salon technicians – many of whom work 10 hours a day, six or seven days a week – were systematically accumulating significant amounts of toxic chemicals.

“It’s not just the dose that makes the poison,” said Charlotte Brody, a registered nurse and executive director of Commonweal, a nonprofit health and environmental research institute in Bolinas.

“We are now beginning to see chronic asthma, dermatitis and other respiratory illnesses,” said Julia Liou, representing Asian Health Services, a community health center serving Alameda County, and the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. Liou said that a research project is to be started in January by Asian Health Services and the Northern California Cancer Center to study whether salon workers have a higher incidence of breast cancer.

Lam Thi Le, 58, a mother of two who lives in Oakland, testified that in 1992, two years after she began working as a manicurist, she was diagnosed with thyroid problems; a decade later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She quit, Le said, “after 12 years of sacrificing my health to make a living.”

George Alexeef, deputy director of the state’s Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which publishes a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity, testified that toluene and formaldehyde – contained in some nail salon products – are among the hundreds of substances identified by his office. He said the two chemicals cause health effects ranging from fatigue and headaches to respiratory irritations and cancer.

“We have more chemicals than we can possibly test or evaluate,” said Alexeef, whose office is part of the state Environmental Protection Agency.

Kristy Underwood, executive officer of the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, which regulates the salon industry, said there are only 16 inspectors responsible for overseeing the state’s 35,000 salons. The state has some 94,000 licensed manicurists.

“It is physically impossible to reach all the salons,” she said.

Also testifying was Nhung Pham, 55, who works at Nail Today in Oakland. She is part of an informal group of salon workers brought together by Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice.

“We share stories about our aches and pains, and some have even shared stories about miscarriages,” she said.

Many of the workers speak little or no English, impeding “our ability to understand the health and safety inspections and citations process,” Pham said.

Migden said she plans to introduce legislation on the matter in the coming year.


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A baseline survey, begins a larger effort to learn whether female nail techs have a higher risk of breast cancer and other diseases, as has been suggested by some smaller studies.

This is part of a larger political issue in terms of the absolute lack of regulation in personal care products. Because makers of personal care products—such as those used in nail salons—don’t have to report ingredients, nobody knows what chemicals the salon workers are exposed to on a daily basis. Despite the lack of reporting, the products are known to contain benzene and methyl chloride, which can cause breast tumors in animals exposed to the chemical fumes.

California has more than 300,000 people licensed to work in nail salons, and the majority of them are owned and staffed by Vietnamese women. Nail salons are among the fastest-growing industries in the United States. Among Vietnamese women in this country, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death.

Of all the women salon workers surveyed, 80 percent said they had concerns about the health effects of working with some chemicals and 62 percent also said they had developed a health problem after they started working in a salon. The concerns they reported included headaches, skin problems, trouble breathing and chronic pain.

Stanford Cancer Center

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You can’t imagine how many chemicals are being used by workers in nail salons everyday. Many of the substances that are used in cosmetic products are also used during manufacturing to clean equipment or soften plastic. Most do not have any knowledge about the health hazards of the products they are using.  In addition, nail salon workers typically work long hours and routinely handle these products” – Connie Nguyen, a California cosmetologist who has suffered respiratory problems from working in beauty salons for 13 years.

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Before heading to the local salon for a manicure or pedicure, be forewarned! You could wind up with more than a new shade of polish and take home a nasty infection.

In late September 2000, a dermatologist in Santa Cruz contacted the county board of health after several patients began showing up at her office with similar, treatment-resistant skin abscesses or boils on their lower legs. She told officials that all five people had recently had a pedicure in one of the whirlpool foot bath chairs at a single salon. These recliner-type chairs have an integral footbath with recirculating water that reaches to just below the patron’s knees.

The screens had never been removed for cleaning, and tremendous amounts of hair, skin, and organic debris had built up.

We anticipate that many will require plastic surgery, because these boils can be very disfiguring.”

Winthrop calls the situation “very unusual.” The vast amount of organic debris in the poorly maintained spa chairs provided “a breeding ground for microorganisms.” Even occasional cleaning would have prevented the outbreak. But with no specific laws and only vague manufacturer’s guidelines for maintaining the chairs, the salon owners had never anticipated a problem.

:: There are other dangers lurking.

“The biggest problem is what’s known as nail fungus. It’s a communicable disease”. “Another is ringworm. Also, both the drills that are sometimes used, and cuticle pushing can damage the matrix of the nail, causing permanent loss or deformity,” she tells WebMD.

As soon as you enter a salon, let your senses tip you off to potential problems, the experts tell WebMD. While you wait, watch to see what each technician does between customers.

“Eyeball around and look at the cleanliness. If there’s a lot of dust and nail debris, they haven’t cleaned,” says Pendley. “They are supposed to completely clear everything off of the table and sanitize their hands between clients. Make sure all implements are completely submerged in a hospital-grade disinfectant, and are lifted out with a pair of tongs.”

According to Goldstene, “disposable items such as nonmetal supplies like toe spreaders and emery boards cannot be disinfected, so new ones should be used for each customer.” That’s not a suggestion, he says, “that’s existing law.”

If you’re uncomfortable for any reason, “don’t be afraid to walk out,” says Goldstene, “even if you had an appointment.” And don’t hesitate to report your experience to the authorities.

Pendley concurs. “Consumers should take responsibility, and if something doesn’t look right, speak up. If you’re too shy, you can write directly to the state board of cosmetology. You can find them on the Internet, or call your state capital for the number.”

WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD


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“Most people are not aware of the hazardous working conditions in  a nail salon. Workers themselves do not want to show that picture to you, to customers and to the rest of the world, because they’re afraid you won’t want to support their business anymore if you know,” said Linh Tran. “We’re trying to reach the consumer too and do it in a way that doesn’t affect business in the nail salon.”

Much of mainstream media’s focus has been on regulating immigrant-owned “discount salons” that are portrayed as unhygienic, yet there has been virtually no mention of health risks to the 1.2 million cosmetologists in the United States, many of whom are recent immigrants, who just want to keep their jobs.

The $35 billion cosmetics industry has successfully found loopholes in the alphabet soup of government agencies–the FDA, EPA, OSHA–and its own self-monitored Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), allowing for an abundance of toxic products like nail polish, acrylics and disinfectants to still be used today. At the same time, nail salon workers have fallen between the cracks as a group of laborers who are not protected but are exposed to large amounts of toxins on a daily basis. Most are young, Asian immigrant women of child-bearing age, and many are not fluent in English.  http://news.newamericamedia.org

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Tara Horton, 37, of Sanger, California, wishes she had dropped out of beauty school. “Out of the eleven of us training to do nails, one woman had a baby that was stillborn at eight months, and another was born all messed up with his bowels and intestinal tract on the outside of his body,” she says. “I remember thinking that’s a pretty high failure rate.” Horton began working in salons and later lost two babies herself and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. “You just don’t go from being a nonsmoking, healthy, active person to dying of cancer without asking why,” she says. “Now, I realize, we were standing over those chemicals all day long.”

“It was basically a sweatshop,” she explains. “I would feel lightheaded and get terrible headaches from the smell of the chemicals, and I was working around sixty-four hours a week, usually with no lunch breaks.” The final straw came when Tran became sick with a stomach virus but her boss told her she would lose her job if she didn’t come to work. “She told me I had to work, but I could rest in the back in between customers,” she says. Tran decided to quit and risk going into business for herself so she could choose her own hours and avoid the acrylic nail products that made her so sick.

The trend of ‘3-Free’ nail polish as a “natural??” alternative to conventional polish is a step foward for the industry, removing 3 of the “most” toxic ingredients. HOWEVER, polishes that are simply ‘3-Free’ still contain dangerously toxic chemicals that pose a health risk to all, from expectant mothers to healthy adults. Tierra Mia’s founders adopted the highest standard for organic nail polish, allowing only water-based formulas to be used in the spa.

Zoya and other makers of ‘3 free’ market itself as a “natural” alternative. This a classic example of poor clarity intended for the general public. Zoya, for example, as stated in their web site, “Zoya nail polish is completely free of formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and camphor and is available in over 300 fashion shades.”

“3 Free” nail polish is (( NOT )) non-toxic, natural, healthy, green or organic!!

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