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The Toxic Truth About Nail Salons


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If you’ve ever stepped into a nail salon, you know the smell of a chemical cocktail that hits you like an invisible wall. While consumers may tolerate it during a short visit, the nail salon workers find themselves stewing in a toxic bubble for years. On this edition, we take a look at the health impacts of chemical exposure, the shoddy regulation of cosmetics, and the movement towards greener nail salons.

Asian Health Services Educates Patient Leaders from pauline bartolone on Vimeo.

Nail Salon Workers Speak Up About Chemical Exposure

The amount of nail salons has nearly quadrupled nationwide in the past decade. In California, about two-thirds of nail salon workers are Vietnamese immigrants. In this next segment, Making Contact Producer Pauline Bartolone explores the health impact of chemical exposure on nail salon workers, and what groups are doing to protect them.


Nail Salon Businesses Go Green in Bay Area

Nail salon workers and advocates are pushing hard to change public policy around exposure to toxic chemicals.  But there’s also a movement coming from businesses themselves to make the salons greener and safer for workers and consumers. Correspondent Momo Chang has more.




Alisha Nga Tran, Patient Leadership Council facilitator, Asian Health Services; Dr. Thu Quach, Epidemiologist, Cancer Prevention Institute of California; My Tong, Associate, California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative; Lam Le, former nail salon worker and cancer survivor; Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins , CEO, Green For All; Jamie Silberberger, Director of Programs and Policy at Women’s Voices for the Earth; Uyen Nguyen, Owner, Isabella Nail Salon; Sarah Vuong , employee at Isabella Nail Salon; Jill Adams , client, Isabella Nail Salon; David Chiu , President of San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Thanks to all of our supporters, to As You Sow‘s Environmental Enforcement Fund and to for helping to crowd fund this story.

For more information:

Asian Health Services
Oakland, CA

California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative
Oakland, CA

National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum
Washington, D.C.

National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance
Washington, D.C.

The Story of Cosmetics

Women’s Voices for the Earth
Missoula, MT


P.S. by Chromakey
Warm Sound by Zero 7

Episode Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] – This week, on Making Contact.

  • We need to phase out these chemicals, now, rather than waiting for research to show the dead bodies.
  • If you’ve ever stepped into a nail salon, you know the smell, that chemical cocktail that hits you like an invisible wall. While consumers may tolerate it during a short visit, the nail salon workers find themselves stewing in a toxic bubble for years.

  • I was working with my client, and I feel my face numb. And he said to call ambulance.

  • On this edition, we take a look at the health impacts of chemical exposure, the shoddy regulation of cosmetics, and the movement towards greener nail salons. I’m Pauline Bartolone.

  • And I’m Andrew Stelzner, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people with vital ideas and important information.



  • It’s Wednesday morning at Asian Health Services in downtown Oakland, California. About 20 Vietnamese speaking patients are gathered around a conference room table. The topic of conversation skips around from health care, to spotting hypodermic needles on the street, to how to fill out a survey. Facilitator, Alicia Tran, finds a way to make the mundane. entertaining.


Tran is a community health advocate at AHS. She runs this patient leadership council every week. Recently, nail salons have been a hot topic.

  • Most of the time I’m talking about a toxic. About wearing mask if you work in a nail salon because you work in a nail salon long hours. Talking about clean products and I talking about ventilation. You need a break, too.
  • Tran speaks about nail salons from firsthand experience. During her career as a manicurist, she worked in four different salons. She had her share of strange side effects on the job.

  • One day, I was working with my client. And I feel my face numb. I feel like, a numbness on my finger, like I hold the customer hand. The way hold like this, I cannot close it, I cannot open it. I sweat a lot. And I was talking with client, and they said to call ambulance.

  • The doctor at the emergency room told her she was anemic. Then, two weeks later, she had another episode on the job.

  • Same thing. Exactly, same thing. Again, client call ambulance again, and come to emergency room again. And luckily, I met the same doctor. He saw me, and he said what go on? I told him, samething. And then, he asked me what kind of shop you work in? And I said, I working for nail salon. I have my own nail salon. And then he said, I think you should quit your job.

And that’s exactly what Tran did– quit working at salons. It didn’t take long before she was working as a health advocate serving mostly the Vietnamese speaking community.


Here, in Oakland, the Vietnamese community is both, newer to the US and lower income than their counterparts in California, according to a group called, VietUnity. About 2/3 of nail salon workers in the state are Vietnamese– 2/3. And the industry is booming, nationwide. As the number of salons has more than tripled in the past decade, so has the number of workers– many of them, women of reproductive age.

Each one of these nail salons is loaded with chemical compounds that are hard to even pronounce. Dibutyl phthalate, Toluene, and formaldehyde– to name a few. Those three ingredients are known as the Toxic Trio.

  • The Toxic Trio were three compounds that got the most attention because people felt like these had the strongest health effects, at this point. And it’s this idea that it’s what they want to start off highlighting. It’s definitely, not the end. Getting rid of these three may not be enough.
  • Dr. Thu Quach is an epidemiologist with the cancer Prevention Institute of California. She says some of the chemicals and nail saloon supplies, such as polishes and cleaning agents, have proven links to some pretty gnarly health effects.

  • Formaldehyde has been deemed a known carcinogen. So there is enough evidence from animal studies and some human health studies that says that this compound causes cancer in humans. And, so we want to be careful when it is in use. And it’s often in use mostly, in disinfectants in the form of Formalin.

The second compound has been the Dibutyl phthalate. Dibutyl is the form that is found in cosmetic products. And that one has been the focus when Europe took this on, because of a lot of the reproductive links.

There’s been concerns that it affects sperm quality. There’s been concerns that it may affect the fetus because it can pass through the placental barrier. So particularly for women who are pregnant and exposed to this, this is of great concern. Toluene is a solvent, and it’s found a lot in the nail polish. And there’s been some links to reproductive health, as well, as well as it affecting the endocrine system.

  • While there is science that proves the toxic effect of these chemicals on animals and humans, there aren’t as many studies done on workers who are exposed to them every day. So Dr. Quach and others decided to look at the prevalence of breast cancer among nail salon workers in California. They matched the names of the California Cancer Registry to the names of licensed manicurists in the state. The result was not one that advocates perhaps, expected to see. Doctor Quach, again.
  • We did not find any increases in cancer at that time, but one of the issues that we knew going in, was that the workforce was fairly young. And the fact that they hadn’t been in that workforce for more than 10 years or so. And with cancer, it actually takes a long time to develop. So we knew that was going to be two of the biggest limitations for us.

  • The study and its limitation shows how hard it is to prove impact on a population such as nail salon workers, from a certain chemical. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t impact. Disease takes a long time to develop. Workers might have a multitude of exposures.

And epidemiological studies need a large population. Regardless, Dr. Quach sees that cancer study as a first step in monitoring this workforce. Plus, cancer is just one of the many health outcomes they’re concerned about; however, Dr. Quach says the government should not wait before regulating toxins in cosmetic products.

  • We need to phase out these chemicals now, rather than waiting for research to show the dead bodies. While we’re waiting for the research, evidence, which often takes so long when it comes to epidemiology and population health science, we may want to face this out now to protect the population before it becomes too late. And it’s particularly hard on a population that’s been so invisible for so long.

And the Vietnamese population dominating this workforce is of greater concern because they’ve had a different history of exposures coming from Vietnam, having been exposed to a lot of chemical warfares during the Vietnam War is of great interest for us. And at the same time, it’s an immigrant population in the US who may not be able to vocalize a lot of their health concerns without the help of community advocates from there. So there’s a lot of pieces into this that makes us say, why wait?


  • Some nail salon workers and their advocates aren’t waiting to work for change. The stories about fellow workers are enough to motivate them; about those who have suffered from cancer, respiratory problems, skin rashes, and chronic headaches. 61-year-old, Lam Lay know some of those symptoms all too well.
  • In the lobby of Asian Health Services in downtown Oakland, Lay is accompanied by Mai Tong, her interpreter and health advocate. After surviving the Vietnam War and living in refugee camps, Lay came to the US in the mid 80s.


  • When she came here, she was only a bit older, and her English is not so good. So she think that being a manicurist is OK for her. She can make a living, but she knows that the chemicals probably won’t be too good for her health.
  • Lay has had her share of health battles: a thyroid condition, asthma, and skin rashes. She had breast cancer, too, and beat it, twice. Lay doesn’t know for sure if her symptoms were caused by her chemical exposure at the salon. She just remembers the constant headaches, the trouble breathing, and the emergency room visits. By the time she was diagnosed with cancer, her medical file was thick.


  • And now, she’s very scared to even go to nail salons. Just seeing it scares her.


  • Despite her hardships, Lay’s quick to smile and to speak up. She’s here at Asian Health Services, not as a patient, but as an advocate. She’s waiting for other nail salon workers before going to a special EPA hearing on environmental justice.


  • She wants to ask Congresswoman Lee and Administrator Jackson to improve the conditions for the nail salons worker.
  • At the Oakland Federal Building, Lam Lay and Mai Tong prepare her statement for Barbara Lee as they waited for the EPA town hall to start.


  • Lay had to turn her two page testimony into one question that fit on a small index card. Then Phaedra Ellis Lamkins of Green For All, read all the questions to the representative.
  • So that we can make sure as many people as possible get their questions answered. You can give them to the team at the front.

  • But at this town hall hearing packed with local leaders and the environmental justice movement, not everyone felt heard. One lady, who says she lives on top of a toxic waste dump in San Francisco stood up and disrupted the meeting. She pointed out her loved one with cancer.

  • In the meantime, we’ve got communities over here where there are a large numbers of black people that are dying. And there is not a single black site worker.

  • The calls for environmental justice were loud. And there were many of them.


  • Now we need some action. We need some proactive–



  • Lam Lay sat patiently through the two hour meeting, watching quietly with interest. But the meeting came to an end without her giving testimony directly to the EPA, without her question being heard.

Is she is she disappointed that she can’t speak at the podium?


  • Yeah, she’s disappointed.


  • Lay is working with the California Healthy Nail Collaborative to push for more government regulation of cosmetics, more research and market pressure to force salons to change the chemical ingredients. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration regulates cosmetics, but that may be an overstatement.
  • We don’t have a ban on known or highly suspected carcinogens, genetic mutagens, et cetera in cosmetics, which is pretty alarming.

  • Jamie Silberberger is Director of Programs and Policy at Women’s Voices for the Earth.

  • The federal law that governs the cosmetics industry, it’s only 2 1/2 pages long, and it hasn’t been updated in 70 years. Because of this, and because the law is so weak, companies can use ingredients that are known to cause cancer or reproductive harm. And it’s perfectly legal for them to do that.

  • There is a cosmetics industry review panel, Silberberger explains. But it’s only evaluated 11% of the more than 12,000 chemicals used in cosmetics. What’s more, she says? The law requiring disclosure of ingredients on cosmetic retail products does not apply to items used in the salons.

  • Nail salon products are not required to be fully labeled. If you buy a bottle of nail polish at a retail store, you’ll see on the bottom there’s a full list of ingredients in that nail polish. And that’s required by federal law. But with salon products, there’s a loophole, and there’s no requirement for salon products to be labeled. So nail salon workers, they don’t know what they’re being exposed to.

  • Groups like the National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance are advocating for more worker protections, not just chemical policy reform. They want change in the permissible exposure limits by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Silberberger, again.

  • Those limits have serious limitations. First of all, the standards were created in the 1960s for an industrial setting. And the intention of that was to protect against acute exposures, but these permissible exposure limits, or we call them, PELS. And they don’t take into consideration the effects of a combination of multiple chemicals over the long term or the chronic health effects of exposure, such as asthma, cancer, or reproductive harm.

Nail salons are entirely different. It’s an entirely different environment. And the other issue with nail salons is that they’re oftentimes, poorly ventilated. So these chemicals that are being released aren’t properly ventilated to the outside. And, so that it increases their exposure to these harmful chemicals.

  • US legislation around chemicals in cosmetics, and around toxic products, in general is a sharp contrast from the laws on the books in the European Union. To date, only about 10 chemicals found in cosmetics have been banned in the United States. Europe, on the other hand, has banned some 1,000. Silverberger calls the European Union’s laws around toxic products, precautionary; an approach the United States is not subscribing to. But there is change brewing on the horizon. The safe Cosmetics Act was introduced in 2010.
  • It would be a tremendous victory if we were able to pass this law. One, it bans the use of known carcinogens, genetic mutagen [INAUDIBLE] toxins. It also requires pre-market safety assessments of all salons and professional use product ingredients. And it does establish FDA requirements for substantiating the safety of ingredients. It requires for products ingredient lists on labels and websites. So that would close that loophole that allows salon products to go unlabeled.

  • The state of California has already passed light cosmetics safety legislation. But groups are still waiting for a more comprehensive national reform to pass.


While lawmakers leave nail salon workers to become canaries in the coal mine, organizations are finding other ways to educate and empower them.


Alicia Tran hopes the health education she does leaks out to the Vietnamese speaking now salon workers.

  • We need their participation. They need their spirit. We need them to spread the news.
  • Lam Lay was at that day’s Patient Leadership Council, looking bright in a blazer jacket, dangly earrings, and a big smile. When she tells her story, Lay’s voice has power, even through the words of an interpreter.


  • She wants to speak out and talk about this issue so other people and manicurists won’t have the same problem like her.


She’s like, other people, they might be quiet, but not me. I want to speak out.


  • We’ll be right back.


You’re listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information or for CD copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736. Because of listeners like you, this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the US, Canada, and South Africa. To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcast, go to


We now return to The Toxic Truth About Nail Salons.


  • Those nail salon workers and advocates you just heard from are pushing hard to change public policy around exposure to toxic chemicals. But there’s also a movement coming from businesses, themselves to make the salons greener and safer for workers and consumers. Correspondent, Momo Chang has more.
  • It’s a Tuesday afternoon in early fall at Isabella Nail Bar, and nail salon in an upscale shopping district in Oakland, California. Nguyen Uyen, the owner of the salon is busy sweeping the floor while workers are giving clients pedicures. Isabella Nail Bar is not like most nail salons. Isabella is a self-described, green salon. They don’t do acrylic nails, and try to use less toxic polishes.

  • When I first came to this country, my sponsor took me to the nail salon to have her nails done and give herself a treatment. And while I was waiting for her to have that thing drilling on her hand, I said, what happened to you? Why do you have to have that metal filer that shushes you on your nail?

And then, she said, oh, this is how it is honey. It’s over here. This is America. So I said, why is it like that? Because in my country, we don’t use that tool to grind on your nail and put all this fun stuff that had the smell on. So still that, in the back of my mind, and then, I said, there must be something better than this.

  • Nguyen, came to this country in 1990 as a refugee from Vietnam, and studied chemistry at California State University. She worked as an engineer in the semiconductor industry for more than a decade. Then, she switched careers and opened her salon in 2008.
  • So here I am opening this, and thinking that, with the two driving force behind. The first thing is about this lovely young lady that working, day in and out, on this chemical, What I can do about it. And also the client, while having the beautiful treatment, relaxing, but not to worry about all these toxic chemicals.

  • Now, distrustful of standard nail salon products, and the health impacts she fears they may cause, Nguyen is careful not to use nail polishes that contain the so-called, Toxic Trio. The Toxic Trio of chemicals or formaldehyde, Toluene, and Dibutyl phthalate, which are linked to cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, and other health problems. She avoids acrylic nails.

One ingredient found in acrylic nails is, MMA, or Methyl Methacrylate, which the FDA calls a poisonous ingredient. The application of the nails creates dust that gets inhaled. And removal often requires soaking in Acetone, a toxic ingredient linked to miscarriages. Sarah Vun, a 23-year-old worker at Isabella Nail Bar, and a mother of a newborn, says that the products used here are less harsh. Before working here, she did acrylic nails.

  • At a salon they have the acrylic. And when you just entered into the door, you already smell the primer, and also a powder, and the liquid. It’s very, very strong.
  • Vun’s relative by marriage, died of colon and uterine cancer in her 30s. She had worked in the nail salon doing mostly acrylic nails for five years. Vun believes it’s not healthy to work with these products.

  • Because after I hear about my brother-in-law, sister, it give me a feeling they acrylic is not safety for my health. And especially, every time when I hold a primer up, I have to wear a mask for that.

  • So far, it seems that Nguyen’s efforts have paid off. The State Air Quality Report of Isabella Nail Bar in 2010 found that chemical levels in her salon are well below regulated limits. Most of the chemicals detected comprise just 1% of Cal OSHA’s permissible levels.

However, there were still many chemicals present in the salon. And chemical levels were higher there than in the air just outside of her shop. Nguyen says it’s a constant challenge to make sure the vendors, who are supplying the polishes and remover, are accurate about what they’re sending to her shop. She has to be vigilant and do a lot of her own research for safer products.

  • While researching it, I found out that so many vendor out there throwing the product on the market with no label. No label at all that describe what chemical, what ingredient, what health problems that it may cause. Just a big container with empty nothing on it. So that took me about six weeks to research into it, to find out just the right polish remover to use.
  • A manicure/pedicure at her salon costs $39, and a regular manicure, $16. The cost is higher than salons elsewhere, in Oakland. But she’s been able to maintain a steady base of customers who appreciate the spa-like treatment, clean foot baths, and greener products. Jill Adams started coming to Isabella Nail Bar soon after it opened in 2008.

  • Perhaps, you are spending a few more dollars. But if you think about what you’re supporting, what you’re perpetuating, and what you’re not perpetuating, and not being compliant in with those extra dollars, it’s well worth every penny.

  • While Nguyen says it didn’t cost her more to open a greener nail salon, health conscious salons do face higher costs. Zoya, the nail polish line that Nguyen mostly uses, cost twice as much as some less expensive polishes. And sometimes, being greener means improving air quality by installing ventilation systems, which is another cost.

While Nguyen is an individual striving to make changes in the nail salon world, a recent policy attempts to help other salons make the change to greener and healthier practices. San Francisco recently passed an ordinance that recognizes nail salons using polishes without the Toxic Trio of chemicals. San Francisco Board of Supervisors President, David Chiu, authored the ordinance called the Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program. He says there are an estimated 200 nail salons in San Francisco, and 1,800 people who work in them.

  • At this time, it’s estimated that over 70% of nail salon workers are immigrant women. These women are often of childbearing age with limited English skills who spend over 10 hours a day being exposed to toxic chemicals and nail polish. And they are generally, making less than $20,000 a year. And from my perspective, I think these immigrant workers shouldn’t have to put their health at risk to make a living. It’s my hope that this is a program that will hopefully, move nail salons from the Toxic Trio out to something that is greener and healthier.
  • Although the ordinance doesn’t provide monetary support for converting businesses to healthier practices, Chiu hopes that it will encourage nail salons to phase out the polishes that include the Toxic Trio of chemicals. A group of non-profits and industry workers, called the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, will do outreach to the salons encouraging them to take part in this voluntary program.

  • The city will provide them with recognition of the fact that they are a healthy nail salon so that they will be able to have marketing materials in their windows, in their establishments to signal to customers that the nail salon that you’re entering is one that does not use the Toxic Trio. And we’re hoping that with this very light government encouragement, that this will move nail salons in the right direction.


  • Nail salons like Nguyen’s Isabella Nail Bar already avoid the Toxic Trio. Nguyen hopes to see more government support for green salons. She opened hers with her own money, but says what’s most important is the desire to change, which begins with education.
  • In my heart, I dream, no more than five years from now, will be so many similar Isabella on the street. Because it’s just the matter of people resistant to change. The first thing is education, first and foremost. And then the profit, because once you get that in their mind, that’s five 10 years from now, all this money you make in it’s not going to outweigh the risks of having cancer, losing your baby, or have a deformed baby. That message needs to get out. So I think to start, I think we have to start from the bottom, which is education.


  • For Making Contact, I’m Momo Chang in Oakland, California.


  • And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. To see videos of nail salon advocates and workers in action, log on to our website: Special thanks to all of our supporters. To [INAUDIBLE] Environmental Enforcement Fund, and to Spa Dust us for helping us crowd fund this story.
  • For a CD copy of this program, called the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736 or check out our website at: to get a podcast, download past shows, or help make a difference by supporting our work. Lisa Rudman is our executive director, Khanh Pham, associate director, Pauline Bartolone, producer and online editor, Keung Jung Li, producer. Carl [INAUDIBLE], volunteer coordinator, Shana Ray and Courtney Supple, production interns, and Dan Turner, Ron Rucker, Alton Byrd, Rachel Keselowski, Andrew Babington and Marie Choi, volunteers. I’m Andrew Stelzer. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.



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