Are Nail Salons Really Bad For Our Health? STELLAR Investigates

Cancers, miscarriages and breathing problems: new reports from the US indicate that manicurists are suffering at the hands of those they're painting, and working for. Is it the same in Ireland? We're finding out.

Woman in nail salon receiving manicure

The big 3: the nail nasties that are damaging womens’ health.

  1. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) – makes nail polish pliable but it’s also a reproductive toxin. Banned in the EU.
  2. Toluene – impairs cognitive and kidney function and can also adversely affect a developing foetus. Used in nail products to help the solvent glide on smoothly.
  3. Formaldehyde – labelled as a human carcinogen but used in the beauty industry as a preservative. Plans to ban it from cosmetics by 2016 in the EU.

Nails are big business, and there’s big love for them. Like our sisters Stateside, we’ll happily spend a Sunday afternoon musing over 50 shades of Seville orange before extending our talons and toes for the works – waxes, filing, buffing, gelling, tips and polish. And up ’til now, we’ve never given the process a second thought… except to admire how well they match our phone cover or something similar.

A series of articles in the New York Times has changed all that. It seems women working in nail salons, hunched over the hands of up to 30 customers a day, are experiencing heartbreaking health effects.

In one shop alone, in the New York borough of Queens, two manicurists have miscarried in the last year – making it loss number five for one of the ladies, while another co-worker gave birth to a boy three years ago who can barely walk and has difficulty speaking.

“Older manicurists warn women of child-bearing age to stay away from the business, with its potent brew of solvents, hardeners and glues that are handled daily,” says the New York Times.

So do we have cause for concern in Ireland? We decided to find out, and asked Andrea Horan, owner of kitsch nail bar, Tropical Popical for her input.“We don’t use acrylics, primary for safety reasons – when you drill off the nails it creates lots of dust and that can cause breathing issues. Proper ventilation is key and we keep the windows open all the time.

“Our girls also have the option of wearing masks and gloves, plus they don’t come in contact with the products or the acetone as they don’t touch them directly.” The Trop Pop nail techs have been through years of training, too. “They know how to handle the chemicals safely so it’s not detrimental to their health,” Andrea points out.

How about the revelations regarding workers surviving on meagre tips alone or a paltry $1.50 an hour? “We pay well and all tips go to the technicians,” Andrea explains. “I’ve heard horror stories about other Irish salons where there’s no lunches taken and girls are working 10-or 11-hour days without breaks. At Tropical Popical, it’s a strict seven-hour shift; if our workers do events they get overtime and lunches are adhered to – that’s paramount. We’re also very focused on career progression.”

While it’s good to know there are some salons with safe working conditions out there, if you’re unsure about your local, follow our hand(y) suggestions:

  • Check if the salon has the option of 3-free or 5-free nail polishes – this means they don’t contain some of the nasties. Look for brands like Butter LONDON and Deborah Lippmann.
  • Make sure the salon is well ventilated with fresh air flowing in the windows and/or doors.
  • If you’re going for a long-lasting manicure, choose gel over acrylic. For your own safety, it’s worth enquiring whether the salon uses LED in place of UV lights for curing (Tropical Popical does this to avoid giving their customers mini sunbeds).
  • Give tips directly to your manicurist to ensure the sponds go directly in their pocket.