Canadian Nail Salons Need to Ease Up on the Toxic Chemicals

Nail art has become an Instagram craze of late, but those social-media ready fingertips may come with a price—the chemicals used to create those gimmicky nails can contribute to horrifying health consequences like miscarriages, birth abnormalities, and...

May 12 2014, 4:31pm

Photo via Alice Chernoff.
That Instagram-ready manicure you just got isn't as cute as you think. Exposure to chemicals used in creating those pastel-cupcake fingertips can contribute to miscarriages, birth abnormalities, and even cancer.

But it gets worse. You can barely walk a few blocks in Toronto without running into one of those nail salons with neon signs in the window, yet the city has largely ignored any potential regulation of the chemicals used behind those storefronts. They're a decade behind where California is in safeguarding this industry, a fact that was discussed at an event hosted in late April by the National Network on Environments and Women's Health (NNEWH) in Toronto. And as California has been a pioneer in the U.S. for regulating nail salon chemicals, NNEWH wants to make Toronto the Canadian equivalent.

"The biggest concern is with what they call the 'toxic trio'—so it's the three main chemicals that are found in a lot of the products: toluene, formaldehyde and phthalates," said Anne Rochon Ford, the leader of the NNEWH project and executive director of the Canadian Women's Health Network. "[California is] like years, years ahead of us in terms of making change and making the salons healthier and working with the product industry to get some of the toxins out of the products that are used most."

Those chemicals may sound pretty foreign, so let me break it down for you. Toluene is an ingredient in the glue that is used for acrylics and can also be in nail polish and polish thinner—it's linked to miscarriages and birth abnormalities. Formaldehyde you may recall as being the chemical used to embalm corpses, but it's also contained in disinfectants, nail polishes, and glues. It's linked to breathing problems like asthma—and as a carcinogen, it can cause cancer. The final type of chemical in the toxic trio, which is present in nail polish, sealant, top coat and base coat are phthalates—these can cause problems in the brain including poor memory and ability to concentrate. Those are just the long-term effects of course. Collectively, the toxic trio can cause skin rashes, itchy, watery or burning eyes, can irritate the nose and throat and can cause light-headedness and nausea. NNEWH made a pamphlet with all this info on it in English, Vietnamese, and Chinese; the top three languages of nail salon workers in Toronto.

By this point you're probably thinking about those masks you see salon workers wear. They must protect them, right? Well, guess what? They don't. The ones you've probably seen on the person working away at grinding down your acrylics are made of thin cotton. Some suggest the solution is N95 masks, which would protect workers more than the ones they typically wear currently, but would still not provide coverage from all of the toxic trio.

The N95 mask. Photo via.
I went to several salons in downtown Toronto to see what their employees had to say about the conditions they work in. At each business, I was immediately greeted with warm welcomes, smiles and (of course) the pungent smell of polish, glue, and acetone. Then they figured out that I was there to ask questions. Being polite and taking alternative approaches had little effect—I got used to being stared at by entire salon staffs with looks of confusion and terror on their faces. One woman who greeted me and asked what services I would like flawlessly in English at Grace Nails on Carlton Street suddenly pretended she didn't understand what I was saying when I tried to set up an interview. "If it is questions you are asking, then I don't answer," she said as she returned to scrubbing a customer's foot for a pedicure.

I guess you can't blame them—it is their livelihood after all. As Ford told me, salons are sometimes even like a second home to employees. After trying three places, I finally found one on Church Street that was (kind of) willing to talk to me. A worker at Tweetie Nails & Spa ran me through how acrylics are done and showed me some of the products they use for this type of manicure, including a tiny vial of KDS nail glue. I later looked up the safety sheet for this glue and found a formaldehyde-containing chemical compound on its ingredient list.

While there are no laws protecting workers and customers of nail salons in Toronto yet, there are some people out there trying to create alternatives to products containing chemicals that are more suited for dead humans than live ones. Tanya Picanco of Indie Polish is one such individual.

"People don't realize what goes on your skin goes in your body," Picanco said. She currently sells a line of safe-as-they-can-get nail polishes via Etsy, where she has made about 1,300 sales. Her products used to be "three-free," meaning they didn't contain the dreaded toxic trio used in everyday salons. Today, she uses a "five-free" base that additionally leaves out formaldehyde resin and camphor. The polishes she makes by hand in her Scarborough garage-turned-studio are whimsical and brightly coloured, containing glitter, confetti and even glow-in-the-dark stars. Picanco is currently paying part of her mortgage with the cash she makes on nail polish, but still manages to sell her wares at a relatively low price $5-15 per bottle.

Photo via Alice Chernoff.
Unfortunately, a big part of the equation of regulating nail salon chemicals has to do with cost. The toxic trio-containing products are cheap and many salons are budget-based.

Elizabeth Glassen, a 22-year-old cosmetician, has been getting acrylics done every three weeks for the last two years. "If they change the way it is now, it's probably going to be more expensive," Glassen said. "I'm always going to get my nails done; I don't want it to break the bank." Glassen's viewpoint is a common one for customers of this industry. Some people just aren't willing (or can't afford to) pay more for a healthier alternative.

It's not like those healthier options are readily available in Toronto anyway. Lush & Lavish in Little Portugal was the first natural-focused salon in the city when it opened in 2009. Linh Diep's business offers no shellac, acrylic or gel manicures, only regular ones using a line of three-free polishes from SpaRitual. In fact, even when new customers want to have old nail treatments such as acrylics taken off, Lush & Lavish refuses—the acetone content of the remover required for such is much too strong for them to allow in their salon. The remover they use for taking off regular polish has the lowest possible percentage of acetone and therefore requires more effort and time on behalf of the manicurist.

"It was very important for me to not expose my employees to chemicals like that," Diep said. She mentioned how sometimes customers don't like that the manicures take longer than at your everyday neon-sign nail salon, an average of 45 minutes compared to 30. The prices at Lush & Lavish for a regular manicure are also slightly higher than average at $30. The more natural alternatives don't come cheap, at least not right now. The only way price will drop is if the demand goes up, but customers will have to start asking more for three-free products before that can happen.

But Ford warned that term organic "doesn't even apply to the nail salon industry." No matter what, there are going to be chemicals involved. The only part of this industry we can change is regulation around what chemicals can be used and the safety precautions workers must take when using them. Until Toronto steps up, workers and customers alike will continue to be left to fend for themselves in the chemical-cloud-filled rooms of salons across the city.


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