Safer Nail Salons in San Francisco

Nail salon photo from Molly Surno's The Smallest Canvas series

I’m pleased as punch about Patricia Leigh Brown’s new New York Times piece, “At Some Nail Salons, Feeling Pretty and Green.” It reports on San Francisco’s new Healthy Nail Salon Recognition ordinance, which gives props to nail salons who use products free of the Toxic Trio (dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and our friend formaldehyde). And it seems to be 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 a story that is super close to my heart, because way back in 2006, I spent a week traipsing around nail salons in San Francisco and Oakland with two amazing women: Lenh Tsan, a community advocate with the Asian Law Caucus’s Nail Salon Project and C. M. Nguyen, a salon worker who together do health and safety outreach to the Bay Area’s nail salons, where 80 percent of workers are Vietnamese immigrants often working against language barriers and other obstacles.

Lenh and C.M. lugged a rolling suitcase filled with gloves and masks and training materials down Oakland’s Grand Avenue, where eleven nail salons crowd into a five-block stretch, often dodging angry salon owners who didn’t appreciate their efforts to reach out. A lot of workers were afraid to talk to us. By the end of the first day, that sweet-sick nail polish smell was everywhere — in our hair, the back of our throats. Several of the women we talked to told me how they suffered daily headaches, asthma and other health problems after ten-hour shifts in the salon. One pulled up her sleeves to reveal a horrible, blistering skin rash.

Then I went home and got on the phone with Doug Schoon, a former VP with Creative Nail Design, now the “scientific consultant” telling everyone not to stress about formaldehyde in Brazilian Blowout. And he told me, “there are no risks to these products if you use them safely.”

Somehow, that didn’t make me feel better.

Today Schoon continues to insist to the New York Times, “I have never heard of anyone getting sick.” Which is interesting, because I sure did happen to mention the women I met in San Francisco. He also notes that most major manufacturers have nevertheless removed the toxic trio, which is 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.)

This is all totally kosher, because there is still no law anywhere in the USA 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.”)

And that’s why I’m rejoicing over these baby step laws. Yes, let’s make sure workers have some g-d gloves. Yes, let’s give public recognition to salons that choose safer product lines to protect their workers’ health. My God, that seems like the very least we can be doing here. (Side note: A lot of salon owners are reluctant to use masks and gloves because they worry it will scare off customers. So you can help with this. 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. Good job there.)

But what makes me even happier is to read about Kim Pham and Uyen Nguyen, San Francisco-area nail technicians who are making the greener nail salon thing happen. Just four years ago, it was pretty hard to imagine that it ever would.

PS. For more on all of this business, check out The Nation article that resulted from that 2006 trip, “The High Price of Beauty.”

PPS. Want to help? CA residents (and really, anyone) can get involved with the California Healthy Nail Salons Collaborative, a network of advocacy groups like the Asian Law Caucus who work with salons to improve working conditions.

AND (because I know everyone not in San Francisco is feeling highly jealous right now): If you know of a great, green salon in your area, do post about it in the comments. I’d love to get a proper list going.

[Photo: Nail technician wearing a safety mask, from Molly Surno’sSmallest Canvas” series, which I am so obsessed with.]



Filed under Ingredients, Nails

4 responses to “Safer Nail Salons in San Francisco

  1. dancing_piglet

    Here in London, England, a world-renowned, bustling metropolis of 7.5 million people, I can only find TWO green salons. In the ENTIRE city. And here’s the kicker: for what would be a standard manicure in North America, we will pay approx $65 plus tip. It’s prohibitive. I’ve had to give up salon manicures and do the best I can myself at home (with Butter London, which is divine!) But I do miss the whole salon experience at times. *sigh*

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