Toxins in Nail Salons: When Environmental and Reproductive Justice Meet

Taken from the September/October 2012 issue of the Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

In 1978, tanker trucks loaded with oil, on a mission from the Ward Transformer Company, drove along the roads of rural North Carolina, illegally dumping toxic Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) everywhere they went. PCBs have been linked to endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity, and cancer, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rules governing their safe disposal.1 So, all of this PCB-contaminated soil had to be dug up and securely stored somewhere safer. In 1982, Governor Hunt’s administration, with the EPA’s approval, chose Warren County as the PCB landfill site. The residents of this poor, rural, mostly African-American community banded together to fight the dump, but eventually it went through. Despite their failure, today the Warren County battle is seen as a pivotal moment that merged the civil rights and environmental movements —and gave rise to the Environmental Justice movement.2

It is no surprise that low-income individuals, immigrants, and people of color get the short end of the stick when it comes to big issues like wages, access to health care, incarceration, and education. But, inequality can work in more subtle ways, as well. Disempowered communities with limited resources and representation have little recourse against polluters and ineffective regulators. To address this problem, the Environmental Justice movement addresses the presence of environmental hazards where we work, live, and play — a danger that often goes undetected and unreported.

Decades after the Warren County protests, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) is combating environmental injustice in an unexpected place — the beauty shop. Every day, thousands of women stream in and out of nail salons and spas with little thought to the chemical fumes swirling in the air. These fumes come from nail polish and remover, disinfectants, and hair straightening treatments.

Of particular concern are products containing the aptly titled “Toxic Trio” of chemicals: formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, and toluene. Formaldehyde (familiar to many from the preserved frogs in high school biology class) easily vaporizes as a toxic gas, in which form it can cause asthma-like respiratory irritation and cancer.3 Formaldehyde is most often used as a nail-hardening agent. Dibutyl phthalate has been linked to menstrual disorders, miscarriages, and spasms in the extremities.4 It provides flexibility and a moisturizing sheen to nail polishes. Toluene is a reproductive toxin that also affects the central nervous system, causes kidney and liver damage, and irritates the respiratory system.5 Toluene is added to polishes to ensure a smooth finish on the nail. Under current laws, it is perfectly legal for products containing the Toxic Trio to be sold in the United States.

Now, thanks to pressure from health advocates, some top brands are beginning to phase the Trio out and labeling their products as “Three-Free.” These brands include Acquarella, Zoya, and Revlon nail polishes. A recent study has revealed, however, that some nail products have been falsely labeled as Three-Free and still contain the Toxic Trio.Without comprehensive laboratory testing of all cosmetics, claims that a product is Three-Free will be unsubstantiated.

Advocating for Change

Ventilation systems pull some of the chemical fumes out of the environment, and customers probably don’t think about them at all as they walk out into the fresh air after their appointments. For salon workers, however, chemical exposure is not such a fleeting concern. Most beauty and nail salons are small, enclosed spaces where it is easy to come into contact with toxic chemical products, even when safety precautions are taken. These chemicals can enter a worker’s body in a variety of ways: they can be inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or accidentally ingested during handling. Logging in months or years at a beauty or nail salon carries serious health risks, including damage to the reproductive system.

Salon workers are often classified (or misclassified) as “independent contractors” instead of “employees” under U.S. labor laws. This classification renders them ineligible for many workers’ rights, including minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and health and safety protections.7 Moreover, because of low socioeconomic status, language barriers, and lack of health insurance, salon workers often cannot access health care services after their bodies react to the Toxic Trio.

Most salon workers already know the health risks associated with cosmetic products. NAPAWF began to focus on this issue after receiving phone calls from distraught workers who experienced spontaneous miscarriages and had trouble conceiving. These women knew their health problems were caused by the toxins they were exposed to on a daily basis. Over 40 percent of salon workers are Asian Americans, and many are immigrant women of reproductive age. In nail salons, their bodies are ground zero.

In partnership with Women’s Voices for the Earth and the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, NAPAWF co-leads the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance. Through strategic movement-building, policy advocacy, and nationwide media efforts, the Alliance works to increase salon workers’ health, safety, and rights.

One of the Alliance’s major concerns is the lack of adequate regulation of the cosmetics industry. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not test cosmetics before they are released on the market, and cannot order a recall of hazardous cosmetics. Additionally, for products that are marketed only to salon professionals, manufacturers are not required to provide ingredient lists. This limits workers’ ability to determine the content, and the safety, of the products they use every day.

Federal agencies must be empowered to provide effective oversight and ensure salon products are safe. The Alliance is advocating for the Safe Cosmetics Act (HR 2359). This bill would require manufacturers to remove toxic chemicals from cosmetics, require accurate ingredient labeling, provide translated safety-handling information, and give the FDA the power to recall toxic products.

The Alliance has also established the first Interagency Working Group on Salon Safety to ensure that the FDA, EPA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) collaborate and share resources to regulate salon products. The Alliance has submitted recommendations to these agencies, which have begun to make progress on meeting our goals of worker health and safety.

And, from July 24-26, 2012, the Alliance hosted a Salon Week of Action in Washington, DC. During the event, salon workers from across the nation met with policymakers and legislators to demand safer work environments so they do not have to choose between having work and being healthy.  (See photo – photo coming by 8/8)

Through collaborative efforts with health advocates, salon workers, and government agencies, the Alliance is working to ensure Warren County does not happen to a new generation. To learn more about NAPAWF’s work to improve the health of nail salon workers, visit

Turner Willman is a reproductive justice intern at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum through support from the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program of Hampshire College.

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1. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Basic Information: Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCB), Washington, DC: EPA, 2012. Retrieved July 6, 2012 from

2. McGurty E, Transforming Environmentalism: Warren County, PCBs, and the Origins of Environmental Justice, Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

3. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA Factsheet: Formaldehyde, Washington, DC: OSHA, 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2012 from

4. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Occupational Health and Safety Guideline for Dibutyl Phthalate, Washington, DC: OSHA, no date. Retrieved July 6, 2012 from

5. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Safety and Health Topics: Toluene, Washington, DC: OSHA, 2004. Retrieved July 6, 2012 from

6. California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Summary of Data and Findings from Testing of a Limited Number of Nail Products, Sacramento: California: California Department of Toxic Substances Control, 2012. Retrieved on July 6, 2012 from

7.Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Stay Healthy and Safe While Giving Manicures and Pedicures: A Guide for Nail Salon Workers, Washington, DC: OSHA, 2012. Retrieved on July 6, 2012 from