Ecofriendly Nail Salons: Color Me Nontoxic

Health problems at nail salons spur ecofriendly shops

| January-February 2010

  • Ecofriendly nail salons

    image by Mona T. Brooks /

  • Ecofriendly nail salons

Walking into the Isabella Nail Bar in Oakland, California, on a rainy spring morning, I notice a remarkable difference between this salon and others that I’ve visited.

No bad nail salon smell.

Uyen Nguyen opened her shop in 2008, and it’s one of a number of eco-friendly nail salons popping up around the country. It features formaldehyde-free polishes, organic lotions, and improved ventilation, among other things. The mission behind Nguyen’s salon, however, goes beyond saving the environment. Years ago, Nguyen’s sister-in-law, who worked in nail salons for over 15 years, discovered that her baby had died in the womb when she was eight months pregnant. Nguyen believes the fetus died because her sister-in-law was exposed to toxic chemicals  in salons, specifically while she was doing acrylic, or fake, nails.

The persistent chemical exposure is “a silent killer,” Nguyen says, “so whatever I can do, I do. The cost [of opening a green salon] of course is more, but the long-term effects are worth it.”

In 2007 Time magazine named nail salon work one of the worst jobs in the United States because of the toxic products used in most shops. Nevertheless, the industry has more than tripled in size during the past decade and rakes in $6 billion annually. There are now 350,000 manicurists in the United States; 96 percent are women and 42 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, according to the industry magazine Nails. These workers are exposed to a constant dose of toxins for eight or more hours a day.

A study conducted in the Boston area by the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, with the nonprofit Viet-AID found that Vietnamese nail workers suffer from a host of health issues, including musculoskeletal disorders, breathing problems, headaches, and rashes. Though the U.S. government sets chemical exposure levels, the regulations aren’t protecting workers, according to Cora Roelofs, the study’s lead author.

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