Vietnamese Nail Salon Workers and Chronic Chemical Exposure

by Sophia Sidhu

Going to the nail salon for a “mani-pedi” is an experience we typically associate with relaxation and luxury. The darker reality, however, is that for nail salon workers who are chronically exposed to toxic chemicals in nail products, this experience can be poisonous and potentially life-threatening.

In the past two decades, nail salon services have evolved into a booming industry, with an estimated 58,000 beauty salons and 350,000 licensed nail technicians in the United States alone (Quach et al.). A large portion of these nail technicians are Vietnamese immigrants who, on a daily basis, handle solvents, glues, polishes, and other seemingly innocent products that contain numerous chemical ingredients known to cause adverse health outcomes. Repeated use of these products is known to result in respiratory, neurological, reproductive, and musculoskeletal disorders, and health conditions such as cancer (“Review of Chemicals Used in Nail Salons”). Despite this, industrial chemicals used in such products are highly unregulated in the United States, with almost 90% of the 10,000 chemicals currently used in beauty and personal care products remaining untested (Quach et al.). The most noxious of these chemicals are toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate, or what is referred to as the “toxic trio”.

Toluene is a chemical used in paint thinners, rubber, and adhesives and is typically found in car exhaust and cigarette smoke. While toluene is banned in the European Union, it remains prevalent in personal care products throughout the United States. Toluene is particularly ubiquitous in nail polishes, as a way to keep the polish smooth in the bottle and upon application. This chemical is listed under California’s Proposition 65 as being linked to cancer, as well as to birth defects and developmental issues in mothers exposed to it during pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the use of nail polish that contains toluene can result in this chemical passing through the skin and bloodstream. Consequently, nail salon workers who routinely inhale this chemical are at an increased risk for neurological damage, depression, and physiological symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, nausea, and eye irritation (“3 Harmful Ingredients That Might Be in Your Nail Polish”).

Formaldehyde is a chemical used as a preservative and sterilizer in plywood and particleboard. It is also a component that is added to nail polish as a “nail hardener” and is commonly used to disinfect nail care tools. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, linked to nasal and lung cancers. Studies conducted by the National Cancer Institute have found that workers regularly exposed to formaldehyde are at increased risk of leukemia, as well as cancers of the nose and the throat. Formaldehyde has also been found by the CDC to cause allergic reactions, nosebleeds, and eye, throat, nose, and skin irritation (“3 Harmful Ingredients That Might Be in Your Nail Polish”).

Dibutyl Phthalate is a chemical commonly used in nail polishes as a “plasticizer” to reduce brittling and chipping of the polish. Studies have found that phthalates are linked to diabetes, thyroid issues, infertility, child developmental problems, and reproductive issues, causing women to undergo menopause as much as 2.3 years earlier than usual. Dibutyl Phthalate, in particular, is banned in the European Union and is listed under California’s Proposition 65 as a suspected teratogen, a term for chemicals that cause congenital abnormalities. Although this chemical is banned in the production of children’s toys in the United States, it remains permitted for use in nail polishes. Dibutyl Phthalate is absorbed through the skin, linked to developmental issues, and can impair fertility (“3 Harmful Ingredients That Might Be in Your Nail Polish”).

This trio of dangerous chemicals is just a portion of the many harmful toxins found in nail salon products. This poses a great risk to the health of the Vietnamese immigrants who predominantly make up the nail salon workforce.  On the national level, 39% of all nail technicians are of Vietnamese descent, a shockingly high concentration based on the fact that only 1% of the total population is Vietnamese. In California, in fact, an estimated 80% of nail salon workers and owners are Vietnamese (Quach et al.). Vietnamese immigrants are often drawn to this profession because it is relatively easy to obtain a license as well as set up a storefront, and fluency in English is not necessary (“In Safer Hands”). Because the Vietnamese population has become dependent on this industry for income, they remain a vulnerable population that is disproportionately at risk for the adverse health outcomes associated with this profession. Through almost every service they provide, these nail salon workers are regularly exposed to the several hazardous compounds in nail products, which is further exacerbated by working in conditions with poor ventilation and little protection. Most nail salon workers are women of reproductive age who typically continue working during their pregnancies and often bring their children to work with them. Based on the accumulation of linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic factors, Vietnamese immigrants are isolated from mainstream services and work long hours with few benefits, such as workers’ compensation, paid sick days, and health insurance (“In Safer Hands”). For this reason, this population has high levels of risk, few safety nets, and even fewer means for self-advocacy.

Although health disparities faced by Vietnamese nails salon workers have been historically overlooked, efforts have been undertaken to address this issue in recent years. For instance, The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative was founded in 2005 in response to the Asian Health Services’ detection of high incidence of health issues such as asthma, allergic reactions, and miscarriages in nail salon workers. The mission of this collaborative is to “improve the health, safety and rights of the nail and beauty care workforce to achieve a healthier, more sustainable and just industry.”  The collaborative teams up with nail salon workers and owners to foster healthy salons, consisting of nail polishes without chemicals deemed hazardous, nitrile gloves, proper mechanical ventilation, and training on health and safety practices for all employees. Five such salons have been established in locations including Santa Monica, Oakland, and San Francisco. Other goals of this collaborative are building leadership among salon workers, conducting research on the health risks of chemical exposures, and advocating for governmental regulation of the health, safety, and rights of this workforce (“California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative”).

Vietnamese nail salon workers and the chronic chemical exposures they face is a complex issue that demonstrates the intersection of reproductive justice, environmental justice, and public health. This issue provides insight into how race and ethnicity, as well as socioeconomic status, can be remarkably influential in determining health outcomes for certain populations.  The future of this issue, however, appears promising due to initiatives such as the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, the establishment of healthy salons, and the training of salon workers to advocate for their safety, health, and rights. While these represent strides in the right direction, it is vital that nail polish manufacturers begin exclusively producing products that are free of toxic chemicals, and that stricter governmental regulation of cosmetics and chemicals is enacted. As a consumer, we can play a large role in addressing this issue as well. It is crucial for us to pay attention, ask questions, and understand that our purchasing power can highly influence manufacturers and lead to the creation of safer products and consequently healthier workplaces (“Health Hazards in Nail Salons: Tips for Consumers”). Through collective efforts in increasing awareness of this issue and advocacy for this population, we can help address health disparities that affect some of the most vulnerable workers in our community.

Sophia Sidhu is an undergraduate student studying Human Biology and Society, Medicine and Public Health. She was part of the Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Group in Fall 2017.

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