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Beautiful Nails, Toxic Business

May 21, 2015

Nail polish


When it comes to beautiful nails, women are getting more daring than they may know. A trip to the nail salon for a manicure may seem like a harmless indulgence. No one can argue that the brighter colors, acrylics, and nail art so popular today make for an affordable fashion statement that simply lets millions of women and men feel good about themselves, fashionistas argue. The result is a booming global nail salon industry worth untold billions. In the U.S., alone, salons now employ over 364,000 workers in one of the fastest-growing industries with estimated annual earnings of $8.3 billion. Not bad for a business that is all about making people feel better, right? (Reference: Nail Polish Business Booms In Weak Economy, Voice of America. See also, NAILS Magazine Big Book 2014)

If only it was that easy. For the millions of men and women visiting nail stylists regularly for manicure and pedicures, it is a fun and relatively inexpensive indulgence. Unfortunately, they may not realize that they are also exposing themselves to toxic chemicals applied to their hands, feet, and even found in the air they breathe while relaxing in the salon.

As bad as that is, nail technicians have it far worse. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issue guidelines detailing the chemical hazards to manicurists. The lists contain some 20 ingredients used regularly by nail stylists that are proven to be harmful, and even fatal, due to possible overexposure. (Reference: Protecting the Health of Nail Salon Workers, United States Environmental Protection Agency. See also, Health Hazards in Nail Salons, United States Department of Labor)

The New York Times recently ignited a firestorm when it published a series of articles about the nail industry’s poor labor and safety practices. The Times report tied those same chemicals mentioned in the EPA and OSHA brochures to an alarming number of cancer, miscarriages, lung diseases, and other ailments among nail technicians and their children. (Reference: Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers, The New York Times) The exposé so alarmed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that he immediately ordered emergency measures to protect New York salon workers and authorized the state health department to research effective safety measures. (Reference: Cuomo Orders Emergency Measures to Protect Workers at Nail Salons, The New York Times)

Call To Action

New York is hardly alone in its concerns over chemical exposure levels in the salon industry. In California, legislation requiring cosmetic companies to reveal specific toxins found in their products has been on the books for nearly a decade. (Reference: California Safe Cosmetics Program, California Department of Public Health)

Throughout the U.S., chemicals used in the nail industry are regulated by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. According to the FDA, that 77-year-old law is in need of an update. It currently does not even require third-party testing or proof of safety before new products are introduced into the marketplace. (Reference: FDA Authority Over Cosmetics, United States Food and Drug Administration)

OSHA, meanwhile, is responsible for regulating all chemicals in the workplace. Several studies involving exposure levels on manicurists have shown chemical use falls well within regulated limits. Even OSHA officials admit, however, that the regulations are in need of updating, since nail technicians are still exposed to dangerous levels of chemicals even though they are within legal limits. (Reference: OSHA Urged To Protect Nail Salon Workers, LaborPress)

In April 2015, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D, CA) and Susan Collins (R, ME), and supported by the cosmetics industry itself, was introduced into the U.S. Senate. If enacted into law, the legislation would grant the FDA more control over cosmetics, including the power to recall dangerous products and require companies to report any health hazards cosmetics may cause within 15 days of learning that such issues exist. The bill would also require the FDA to review five chemicals used in the cosmetics industry for safety on an annual basis, including propylparaben, lead, acetate, and methylene glycol, which releases formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. (Reference: Cosmetics Regulation Is a Joke, but Senate Bill Could Finally Fix That, Slate)

Finding Compromise Through Science

While the U.S. is not alone in its lack of regulation over the cosmetics industry, it lags far behind the EU’s ongoing efforts to proactively protect its citizens and workers from serious health hazards. (Reference: Mark Schapiro, Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What's at Stake for American Power (2009),passim) Fortunately, that now appears to be changing.

U.S. legislators, the public, and the cosmetics industry are now all calling for the modernization of cosmetics industry regulations. (Reference: Cuomo Orders Emergency Measures to Protect Workers at Nail Salons, The New York Times) While much needs to be done before a true consensus is achieved, one essential mandate is clear. The key to real reform begins with sound science.

In the nail salon industry, the top chemical compounds requiring close oversight all fall into the analytical sweet spot of global life and environmental health leader PerkinElmer. Its family of analytical instruments extends from its Clarus® and new Altus chromatography platforms to the award-winning NexION® 350 ICP-MS. These are just a few of the world-class PerkinElmer instruments that are helping to define a better, safer world for us all to enjoy those beautiful nails… and remain healthy while doing it.

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