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Report Turns Spotlight on Dangerous Chemical Exposures in Nail Salon Workers

May 13, 2015

Exposure to chemicals used in nail salons may be associated with an array of injuries and illnesses in salon workers and, in some cases, their children and unborn children.

The New York Times interviewed more than 125 nail salon workers who reported airway issues, constant nosebleeds, aching throats, and persistent coughs. Nail salon workers have reported skin disorders; skin turning brown because of coloring additives in nail products; fading and loss of fingerprints; serious pain in the fingertips due to work with files and solvents, and black, painful skin pustules and fungal infection.

Medical research reveals links between chemicals in beauty products and serious health problems. Chemicals that make polishes chip-resistant and pliable are associated with significant adverse reactions, according to the Times. Manicurists who handle these chemicals on a routine basis, and who are inhale fumes all day, may suffer significant health effects. Some of the chemicals found in nail products are known carcinogens and some have been linked to reproductive health risks, including abnormal fetal development and miscarriages. In some salons, older manicurists advise those of childbearing age to avoid the manicure business.

A 2006 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine included over 500 Colorado manicurists revealed that approximately 20 percent suffered from a persistent cough Those who worked with artificial nails suffered a three-fold increased likelihood of developing asthma on the job, according to the Times. Yet another study revealed that manicurists suffered from an increased risk of gestational diabetes and risk of below normal sized babies. Some nail polish companies have touted the removal of some dangerous chemicals from their polishes, but random testing conducted by government agencies revealed that the chemicals were still present, according to the Times.

Only a small number of studies have looked at nail salon workers. More information is needed to understand the depth of potential damage caused by the hazardous chemicals used in manicure products and how these chemicals will affect and accumulate over time. Federal cosmetics safety law does not require firms to share safety information with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Times reports.

Three chemicals used in nail products-dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde-are known, according to the Times, as the "toxic trio."

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which makes nail polish pliable, is listed as a reproductive toxicant in Australia and requires warning labels are required there. DBP is one of the more than 1,300 chemicals banned from use in cosmetics in the European Union. The U.S. has no restrictions on DBP.

Toluene is a solvent that enables nail polish to apply smoothly. An EPA fact sheet indicates that toluene may impair cognitive and kidney function and that, repeated exposure during pregnancy, may "adversely affect the developing fetus."

Formaldehyde, largely known as an embalming chemical, is also used to harden nail products. In 2011, the National Toxicology Program, of the Department of Health and Human Services, labeled formaldehyde a human carcinogen. Formaldehyde will be banned from cosmetics in the European Union by 2016.

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