The real cost of a manicure

Jessica Doojphibulpol/Staff

“Nails done, hair done, everything did.” These are lyrics to the popular Drake song “Fancy.

The beauty industry is a booming business and a common appeal — even musicians talk about it in their songs.

In 2017, the nail salon industry generated about $8.53 billion in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017, the average pay for manicurists was $24,980, which is about $12.01 per hour. The average cost of a manicure is $20.

The nail industry is expected to grow and employ more people. However, the health of manicurists and other nail technicians is at stake. Manicurists are exposed to heavy fumes from the chemicals used in the salons for long periods of time. Many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, birth defects, miscarriages and other harmful reproductive health issues.

Skin disorders are very common among nail salon workers. The chemicals in the products are classified as skin sensitizers, which can contribute to painful reactions.

Research is limited among nail salon workers. Little is known about the extent to which they are exposed to harmful chemicals, the accumulated effect over time and the relation of this exposure to their health. The two most important laws pertaining to the safety of cosmetics sold in the United States are the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. These laws are outdated and do not require producers to share safety information with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These laws ban ingredients that may be harmful to users, but they do not contain provisions to test the effects of the chemicals before putting them on the shelves.

In California, complaints from nail salon workers were popping up at Asian Health Services, which is based in Oakland. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative was created to improve the health, safety and rights of nail and beauty care workers. It has also advocated for the ban of hazardous chemicals used in nail salons.

Many customers often complain about the lack of hygiene in nail salons; however, many nail salon workers bear exposure to skin diseases and fungal infections from their daily interactions with customers’ hands and feet.

Dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, toluene and formaldehyde are the top three chemicals associated with most serious health issues. They are commonly known as the “toxic trio.” DBP is the ingredient that makes nail polishes pliable and was listed as a possible contributor to impaired fertility. The European Union has banned this chemical and 1,300 other hazardous chemicals; however, the United States has banned fewer than a dozen hazardous chemicals in such products, and there are no restrictions on DBP. Toluene is a solvent that helps nail polishes glide on smoothly. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, this chemical can impair cognitive and kidney functions. Formaldehyde is a hardening ingredient in nail products. In 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services labeled it as a carcinogen.

Exposure to these known hazardous chemicals will have adverse health effects on nail salon workers. More research will need to be done to learn more about the long-term effects of exposure to such chemicals. Many coalitions such as the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative are making strides in advocating for stronger oversight and restrictions on harmful chemicals in cosmetic products. Results of these efforts include fewer harmful chemicals and better alternatives.

The Healthy Nail Salon Program is a grassroots program that encourages nail salon owners to use “green” nail products in their shops. Additionally, shops must provide adequate ventilation, perhaps by opening windows and doors. Currently, there are about 55 out of a few thousand salons in California involved in this program.

Pushing for better nail product alternatives and changing policy regarding current hazardous chemicals used in nail products are just the steps needed to provide better health outcomes and improve overall well-being for all nail salon workers. We as consumers can be more aware of the types of nail products we buy for personal use as well as be more proactive in seeking out nail salons with fewer harmful chemicals. Some nail polish brands with nontoxic chemicals are: Zoya, Suncoat, Honeybee Gardens, Sheswai and LVX. Also, limiting the times we go to the nail salon will help reduce our exposure to these chemicals. So, instead of every two weeks for a fill or color change, maybe go every three weeks or every month.

Looking “fancy” comes with a cost. That cost is the health of the nail salon workers.


Ijeoma Eke is a recent graduate from San Jose State University with her master’s degree in public health.