Chemicals that are carcinogens, hormone disruptors, and toxins are often used. (Photo: Getty Images)
The New York Times released a series of explosive articles this week, detailing poor working conditions of some New York City manicurists as well as the health risks they face daily.
Cancer, miscarriages, and lung disease are just a few of the serious ailments they could develop as a result of their work.
The Times spoke with more than 125 nail workers, many of whom have frequent breathing problems, constant nosebleeds, and throats that ache daily. One former nail salon owner developed an inflammatory disease in her lungs after inhaling clouds of acrylic that gouged holes in her lung tissue. Another has fingerprints that have been disappearing from her constant work with nail files, solvents, and emollients.
Manicurists aren’t the only ones in the beauty industry to face health risks — hair salon workers are exposed to dangers, too. In 2011, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a hazard alert to hair salon owners and workers about potential formaldehyde exposure from working with Brazilian Blowout hair smoothing products.
OSHA recommended that salon workers stop the use of products that contain formaldehyde and suggested that those who don’t give workers respirators to use while applying the products. The Food and Drug Administration soon followed, issuing a warning letter to Brazilian Blowout for safety and labeling violations. (The FDA regulates cosmetics, including products sold and used at hair and nail salons, but those cosmetics do not have to be approved by the organization before going on the market.)
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health also found that hairdressers are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer. (However, no cause has been pinpointed.) The Times points out that cosmetologists face increased risks of multiple myeloma and death from Hodgkin’s disease, and are more likely to have low birth-weight babies.
The reporting by the Times sheds light on the very serious risks faced by those working in the industry — and, indeed, the bulk of the risk is with the “workers who are exposed to this all the time,” Sharima Rasanayagam, PhD, the director of science for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, tells Yahoo Health.
But even for visitors of salons — the consumers — “these are chemicals which do have health effects,” Rasanayagam says. The main ones of concern: Known endocrine disruptor toluene, known carcinogen formaldehyde, reproductive toxin dibutyl phthalate, and hormone-disrupting methacrylate compounds. For consumers, exposure to these chemicals isn’t just from visiting a nail salon. You can breathe them in from nail polish or hair dye vapors, absorb them through the skin from shampoos and conditioners, and even ingest them if you bite your nails.
Women who are pregnant should also be cautious when visiting a salon. “When a baby is developing within the womb is when it is most vulnerable to some of these hormone disruptors,” says Rasanayagam.
According to women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, the health risks of salons are underreported. “The question is how much exposure puts a person at risk,” she tells Yahoo Health. More research is needed to say if people who regularly frequent salons face greater health risks (such as that breast cancer risk seen among hairdressers), but it is known that “breathing in these chemicals can definitely trigger asthma in sensitive people.”
If you’re planning to get a manicure or pedicure, make sure your salon has plenty of fresh air circulating through, which should help diffuse chemicals lingering in the air, says Rasanayagam. And Wider recommends checking nail polish ingredient lists for toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate, or just bringing your own from home to be safe.