The new asbestos: The truth behind nail salons and what you need to know

Beautiful, carefully manicured nails have been a part of women’s beauty regimes for years, creating a billion dollar industry. Hollywood stars and celebrities have perfectly groomed fingers and many believe nice nails show you care about your appearance.

But are we killing ourselves for beauty? It would appear that way if the latest news is anything to go by. Recent articles by the New York Times have exposed an industry that’s leaving more and more workers in the US and around the world with health problems. And it’s not just workers who can be affected, it’s anyone who steps into a nail salon.

So why are nail salons so dangerous? It’s no surprise that nail care products contain many toxic and potentially hazardous ingredients.

Thu Quach, Research Scientist at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, found that chemical ingredients in nail care products can range from cancer-causing compounds such as formaldehyde to others that disrupt the endocrine system. Other researchers have identified toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate – nicknamed the “toxic trio” because of their serious health impacts – as three chemicals of high concern for salon workers.

Toluene is a commonly used solvent that creates a smooth finish across the nail and keeps the pigment from separating in the bottle, but can affect the central nervous system and cause reproductive harm. Its major use is as an additive in gasoline.

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Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is used as a nail-hardening agent and disinfectant for nail care tools.

Exposure to dibutyl phthalate, added to polishes to provide flexibility, has been linked to reproductive problems. In addition to this trio, there are many other harmful chemicals used in nail care products.

Additionally, many nail salons lack adequate exhaust ventilation, such as open windows and doors. Evaporated chemicals from nail products can be trapped in salons, exposing workers and customers. But it is workers whose exposure is doubled with direct contact and then breathing them in within confined spaces.

And although millions of bottles of nail polish and nail care products are sold each year, industrial chemicals in cosmetics are largely unregulated in the US. What does that mean for the average consumer? Well, that bottle of nail polish you apply to your nails or the nails of your granddaughter was put on the market without ever having been tested for safety.

Worryingly, nail technicians pay a price and are exposed to harmful chemicals which can cause skin irritations, eye injuries, allergic reactions, cognitive and neurological symptoms, nausea, respiratory problems, cancer and uncontrollable muscle contractions to impaired reproductive and development processes, says Ms Quach.

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In California, there is new training and formal recognition for salons, requiring workers to wear gloves and have proper ventilation. Here in Australia, nail salons are poorly regulated, calling for an overhaul of the industry. So far, there are no plans in place to change it.

So if you’re looking to buy nail products or services soon, look or ask for polishes without the toxic trio – formaldehyde, toluene and phthalates – but in the end, ceasing to buy chemicals and applying them to your skin and inhaling are strongly discouraged.


Tell us, when was the last time you went to a nail salon? Will this stop you going back again?