The New York Times reports that many nail salon workers may are face serious health consequences, including cancer and miscarriage, as a result of being regularly exposed to chemicals in nail products. Emerging research indicates that these chemical are linked to serious health issues. Meanwhile, nail salon workers across the country report similar stories of developmentally delayed children, miscarriages, cancer, respiratory conditions and skin afflictions. There are few laws in place to protect these workers, and the industry has long fought stricter regulations.
According to NYT, nail workers are known to exhibit higher rates of respiratory and skin conditions. However, the link to more severe health problems is not as clear. Some chemicals are known carcinogens and others are associated with birth defects and miscarriages. The three chemicals associated with the greatest health risks, referred to as the “toxic trio” by worker advocates, are dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde. Some nail polish companies say that they their products no longer contain these ingredients, labeling them a “3-free” or “5-free” in reference to the number of hazardous chemicals that are no longer present. However, some of these products claiming to be free of these chemicals still contain them; this was shown by a 2010 FDA study and in a 2012 study by the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substance Control.
Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) gives nail polish and other products pliability. This chemical will be banned from cosmetics in Australia starting in June. Currently, it is listed as a reproductive toxicant and must carry a label warning that it “may cause harm to the unborn child” and pose “possible risk of impaired fertility.” The European Union has banned the use of DBP in cosmetics, but no such regulations exist in the United States. As a comparison, the US bans fewer than a dozen chemicals in cosmetics while the EU bans more than 1,300.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), toluene can damage cognitive and kidney function and “adversely affect the developing fetus,” when constantly exposed during pregnancy. Toluene helps nail polish be applied smoothly. It is a type of solvent.
Many nail products use formaldehyde as a hardening agent. It was labeled as a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program in 2011. The European Union will ban formaldehyde from cosmetics by 2016.
NYT reports that there is little regulation of chemicals in nail products. The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 dictates this, and the section referring to cosmetics is brief, only 591 words. The FDA explains on its website that these products do not undergo premarket approval and that no tests are needed to show that individual ingredients are safe. The cosmetics industry set up the Cosmetic Ingredient Review in 1976. According to its website, the purpose of the group is to “review and assess the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics in an open, unbiased and expert manner,” However, NYT reports that the panel is fully financed by an industry lobbying group called Personal Care Products Council. Janet Nudelman, the director of program and policy at the Breast Cancer Fund said of the situation, “It’s a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse,” according to NYT. “You’ve got an industry-funded review panel that’s assessing the safety for the very industry that’s funding the review panel.”