The Nail Salon Experience: Threatening or Treating Yourself?

By: Rachel Sarraf  |  April 5, 2022

By Rachel Sarraf

Many people enjoy getting their nails done on a monthly, or even weekly, basis. There are different types of nail applications: regular nail polish, powder nails, or ultraviolet (UV) gel nail application. Though many are not aware of the dangers involved with the nail salon experience, it is important to be cognizant of the harmful chemicals and compounds involved when someone paints their nails. 

When someone gets their nails done, many steps are involved in the process. During the preparation, the nail technician uses nail polish remover to remove the remaining nail polish on the nails. The nail polish remover is mostly made of acetone, a volatile organic compound (VOC). Increased exposure and contact with toluene, another type of VOC, lead to acute and chronic poisonings. 

Dibutyl phthalate, a member of the phthalate chemical family, is utilized in nail salons to reduce nail chipping. Phthalates are classified as endocrine disruptors, and they mimic the estrogen hormone in one’s body. Also, phthalates have been proven to impair the hormonal development of male fetuses and can cause organ damage. According to Pınar Erkekoğlu, a professor at Hacettepe University, “[s]everal methods, including chromosomal aberration test, Ames test, micronucleus assay and hypoxanthine guanine phosphoribosyl transferase (HPRT) mutation test and Comet assay, have been used to determine genotoxic properties of phthalates.” 

An additional chemical compound found in nail salons––specifically in nail polish––is Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP). It is used as a plasticizer and a fire retardant. In one study, researchers found that “nail polish may be a significant source of short-term TPHP exposure and a source of chronic exposure for frequent users or those occupationally exposed.”

In 2019, a study aimed to characterize occupational health risk factors and chemical exposures among Asian nail salon workers on the East Coast of the U.S. The data from this study was collected from 112 workers exposed to 100 personal chemical measurements spanning from 25 nail salons. The nail salon workers self-reported health problems that either emerged or became worse after these individuals began working in the nail salon industry; 8% had headaches, 9.8% reported lightheadedness, and 21.2% reported that they had nose, eyes, throat, and skin irritation. Also, about 70% of the participants said that they were pregnant, of which 11.7% had at least one miscarriage. An additional study was conducted about “[e]xposure of Nail Salon Workers to Phthalates, Di(2-ethylhexyl) Terephthalate, and Organophosphate Esters.” This study was organized to learn more about the exposure of nail technicians to semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOC), and compared urine samples before and after their shifts at the nail salon. The urine samples collected post-shift had a higher concentration of SVOC than the pre-shift samples. The change that appeared the greatest was for a metabolite of the phthalate alternative di (2-ethylhexyl) terephthalate (DEHTP). This shows that there is not only exposure to volatile organic compounds, but also to semivolatile organic compounds as well.

One method of applying gel nail polish is by using a UV nail lamp “a source of artificial UVA radiation, often used to dry, harden, and cure the nails at home and in the salon.” Doctor Nahla Shihab, an internist and researcher in Maryland writes, “UVA radiation is known to be mutagenic and can cause damage to the DNA, resulting in cutaneous malignancy.” There had been a report on two women who had undergone this treatment and developed squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) on the dorsum of their hands, which sparked concerns about the safety of this method. The analysis showed that women who used UV nail lamps regularly had a much higher chance of developing SCC on the dorsum of their hands. Researchers believe this occurs because “UVA penetrates deeply into the dermis to cause cellular damage and photoaging.” One can reduce the risks by wearing fingerless gloves and wearing sunscreen. 

Luckily, there are many ways to prevent risks from the harmful chemicals involved in getting one’s nails done.  From the perspective of a nail technician, there are various ways to mitigate these risks. For example, they could wear nitrile gloves (protect against chemical compounds), wear a mask, and wear goggles. Additionally, there should be an updated ventilation system in the nail salon. Moreover, nail technicians should be aware of and read the health guides provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and OSHA. 

Others are adamant that reducing the risks of exposure through the use of healthier, alternative nail polish brands, such as OPI, Orly, and Sally, is the wiser approach to tackling this issue. Another way to reduce risk is by using non-toxic nail polish remover. For example, instead of using nail polish with 100% acetone, use one with a lower percentage so that it is not so highly concentrated. Lastly, it may be best to bring your own tools and nail polish because it is cleaner and will decrease the chances of spreading bacteria and fungus. 

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