As reported in The New York Times, San Francisco has just rolled out their shiny new Healthy Nail Salon Recognition ordinance, which gives props to nail salons that use products free of a toxic trio of sketchy chemicals (dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and our friend formaldehyde). This is only the second piece of legislation in the country geared towards reducing occupational hazards in nail salons. (The first was a law passed by New York state in July requiring salon owners to make masks and gloves available to workers.)

This is great news for the thousands of nail technicians in the Bay Area (like Kim Pham and Uyen Nguyen, both now owners of green, toxic-trio-free salons), many of whom report a host of health problems ranging from migraines and breathing trouble to skin disorders and even miscarriages, possibly caused by the daily onslaught of chemical exposures.

But what about the rest of the country's nail technicians -- not to mention the hair stylists working with Brazilian Blowout–type straighteners and ammonia-laden hair dye, and the estheticians working with a whole range of toxic-chemical-laden face goo?

We need more green nail salons, and hair salons and spas. Like, everywhere. Because right now, this workforce of nearly half a million women are acting as our canaries in the beauty shop coal mine, inhaling toxins for $8 to $15 an hour, while we debate just how toxic is this stuff, really? I love, love, love me a shiny new pedicure, but wow, does that kill the foot-rub buzz.



And meanwhile, the industry continues to dispute the risks. Exhibit A: Former nail polish executive–turned–scientific consultant Doug Schoon, who tells the Times, "I have never heard of anyone getting sick," while noting that most major manufacturers have nevertheless removed the toxic trio, which is only about half true. OPI, for example, introduced a new formaldehyde-free nail hardener while continuing to also market their old formaldehyde-containing nail hardener. Thus, spoiling you for choice. And confusing the heck out of everybody.

But this is all totally kosher, because there is still no law anywhere in the U.S. that requires nail polish companies (or any other cosmetics manufacturer) to test their products for safety before putting them on store shelves. Plus there's a major legislation loophole that allows them to be less than transparent when it comes to ingredient lists. (Phthalates, for example, are almost never listed on products that contain them, because they're considered part of the proprietary fragrance formula and thus a "trade secret.") Which is how we end up with formaldehyde in our nail hardeners -- and our formaldehyde-free Brazilian Blowouts.

And that's why I'm rejoicing over these baby step laws. Yes, let's make sure workers have some damn gloves and masks to offer a modicum of protection. Yes, let's give public recognition to salons that choose safer product lines to protect their workers' health. And while we're waiting for bigger, better laws to protect them, we can do our part as beauty consumers, by supporting green salons when we can find 'em and encouraging the non-green salons in our area to make small changes. For example: Many nail salon owners are reluctant to use masks and gloves because they worry it will scare off customers. So if you see your manicurist wearing them, make a point to tell the owner that you appreciate them taking appropriate safety precautions, and are, in fact, happier to support a salon that cares about its workers.

P.S.: Want to help out even more? California residents (and, really, anyone) can get involved with the California Healthy Nail Salons Collaborative, a network of advocacy groups who work with salons to improve working conditions.


Virginia Sole-Smith is a journalist, soon-to-be licensed esthetician, and author of the blog Beauty Schooled. Her most recent piece for Lemondrop was about the Girl Scouts' fight against Photoshopping.