The Current

Nail salon workers exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals, new study reveals

A University of Toronto study found that nail technicians at discount salons are exposed to high levels of hazardous chemicals commonly used as flame retardants and plasticizers.

University of Toronto research findings showed levels of flame retardants far higher than at e-waste disposal

Toronto nail technician Jackie Liang also works with the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre’s Nail Salon Workers Project, which helped facilitate a new study on the chemicals technicians are exposed to on the job. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

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Every time Jackie Liang opens a bottle of base coat to apply during a manicure, she feels itchiness in her throat and coughs right away. The Toronto nail technician says she's also suffered from skin conditions.

"Most nail technicians have a skin problem," Liang told The Current host Matt Galloway. "But a skin problem you can see, and I worry about the problems in our body you can't see."

The results of a recent University of Toronto study suggest her worries are valid.

Published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology last month, the study found that nail technicians at discount salons are exposed to high levels of hazardous chemicals commonly used as flame retardants and plasticizers — substances that are added to materials to make them more flexible or viscous.

The University of Toronto study found significant levels of plasticizers and flame retardants in the air at discount nail salons. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

The researchers say this points to the need for better federal government regulation of the products supplied to nail salons. 

Environmental chemist Miriam Diamond is co-author of the study and a professor at the University of Toronto, both in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and the department of earth science.

Diamond said the research is part of a larger effort to look at hazards experienced by nail salon technicians.

Miriam Diamond, co-author of the study, said the findings point to the need for stricter government regulation of all the companies in the supply chain for nail products sold to salons and consumers alike. (Submitted by Miriam Diamond )

"In our study, we look specifically at some compounds that can lead to adverse effects or bad health effects specifically during fetal development," she told Galloway.

"We were concerned because many of the women working in nail salons are of reproductive age. And that means that if they're pregnant, their fetus could be exposed to elevated levels of some chemicals that have been shown to be hazardous to fetal development."

Working with the  Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre and Toronto's Healthy Nail Salon Network — a coalition of nail salon workers and owners, researchers, non-profits and government agencies working on the health and safety of nail salons — the team recruited 18 salons and 45 technicians to their study, said Diamond. The research was completed between September 2017 and September 2018.

On the job, the technicians wore vests outfitted with miniature vacuums that sucked up samples of the air they were breathing and captured the chemicals in that air onto cartridges. Additionally, they wore silicone brooches and wristband "samplers" that passively absorb chemicals. The researchers then studied the cartridges and samplers in their lab, Diamond said.

Liang holds a bottle of acetone at a nail salon in Scarborough, Ont. She said she and others who work in the industry are concerned about what the chemicals in the products they work with may be doing to their bodies. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

"We found that the levels of plasticizers were about two to three times higher than what we would find in homes of the general public," she said.

The team had previously studied levels of plasticizers in homes in Toronto and Ottawa, so were able to draw on that data for comparison, she said. 

Diamond said the team found that the levels of plasticizers in the air at the salons were about two to three times higher than what would typically be found in homes. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Surprising level of flame retardants

"What we were really surprised to find, though, were levels up to 100 times higher of two types of flame retardants," said Diamond. "So 100 times higher than in homes in Toronto and Ottawa."

Her team had also done a comparable study looking at chemical exposure in people who work at an electronic waste disposal site.

"It was really shocking to us to find up to 10 times higher concentrations in the nail salons relative to the e-waste dismantling facility," she said.

That was unexpected given that flame retardants have not been known to be used in personal care products, she said.

Exposure to plasticizers and flame retardants has been associated with a range of negative health implications, including low birth weight babies, decreased memory in children exposed in utero, lower sperm quality and failed in vitro fertilization, the study says.

Liang said she enjoys making her customers happy with a manicure or pedicure, but that she and many of her colleagues feel powerless to change the industry to make it safer. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Liang, who has been working with the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre's Nail Salon Workers Project, said she's not surprised by the findings.

"I know through close co-workers that the miscarriages are a problem," said Liang.

While there are many reasons for miscarriage, Diamond said those reports are "very disturbing, and that's really what what prompted our work."

Liang said she wondered whether she should stay home during her own pregnancy, but that financial pressure kept her from doing so.

There is little risk to consumers who only have limited exposure to the chemicals in nail salons, said Diamond, a professor in both the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and the department of earth sciences at the University of Toronto. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

She said that nail technicians feel "powerless because we know the chemicals are not good for our bodies, but we don't know how to change it."

Liang notes that many nail technicians are new Canadians who don't feel they have many employment options or the command of English to advocate for a solution to the chemical exposure issue.

Greg Robins, executive director of BeautyCouncil, an association that represents personal service workers and businesses in the western provinces, said exposure to chemicals is a long-running issue in the industry.

"The thing about the nail products is that they are highly volatile, and they're volatile for a specific reason — they need to set and dry and firm up quickly … so that a nail tech can get the client in and out of the salon quickly," said Robins, who lives in North Vancouver.

While Robins said the association's resources in the last couple of years have gone to working with provincial governments to keep salons operating during the pandemic, he said "looking forward, this is absolutely imperative that we … put some focus on and work with government agencies, such as WorkSafeBC, to further workplace safety when it comes to chemical exposure."

Risk to customers quite low

Diamond stresses the risks to nail technicians are tied to prolonged exposure over long work hours.

"The customers should not be too concerned. It's a very short-lived exposure. We're most concerned about the nail technicians. They're there hour after hour, up to 10 hours, day after day."

She said her team undertook this research "to bring attention to the problem so that nail salons could be healthier places, so that workers can gain their living with confidence that it's not impairing their health."

"We absolutely don't want to do anything that deters customers from visiting nail salons."

Meghan Ross, a senior research analyst with marketing research firm Mintel who specializes in the beauty industry, said she expects concern for salon workers will play into some consumer decisions. (Submitted by Meghan Ross)

Meghan Ross, a senior research analyst with marketing research firm Mintel who specializes in the beauty industry, said consumers are becoming more savvy about the ingredients in beauty products and more concerned with exposure to toxins. 

"I think absolutely that awareness of what ingredients are included in at-home products is going to translate to the ingredients that they're exposed to in salons, even though they will be used to a much lesser extent," said Ross, who lives in Toronto.

"If it's not healthy for daily use, then they're going to be considering whether it's healthy for weekly or monthly exposure as well." 

Ross said she expects concern for salon workers will play into some consumer decisions as well. 

Liang gives a manicure at a nail salon in Scarborough, Ont. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

"We're seeing a lot of workers' rights movements emerge during the pandemics that's brought a lot of these inequalities to light," she said.

"So I think consumers are going to be paying closer attention to how these workers are treated and what type of hazards they might face at work. Not only are they going to be advocating for healthy products to be used for themselves, but also for the salon workers as well."

Robins adds that another piece of the puzzle is that the price point of nail services is typically so low that there's very little money left for the things like installing ventilation systems in  spaces they rent. "I don't know that consumers would be prepared to pay a whole lot more to get their nails done because the operator needs to put in a ventilation system."

Policy implications

Critics have noted that Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), which governs personal care products, hasn't been updated since 1999.

However, on Feb. 9, the federal government introduced Senate Bill S-5, entitled the Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act, which proposes to significantly update CEPA. A previous version of the act was introduced as Bill C-28 in April 2021, but was left on the table when Parliament was dissolved ahead of the federal election.

Researchers behind a new University of Toronto study on the chemicals that nail technicians come in contact with on the job say their findings point to the need for more federal government regulation on the products supplied to nail salons. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

In an email to CBC, Health Canada said that "all cosmetics sold in Canada must be safe to use and must not pose any health risk. They must meet the requirements of the Food and Drugs Act and the Cosmetic Regulations." 

The statement went on to say that the chemicals in cosmetics are subject to CEPA, as well as the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, and that "nail salons are regulated by provinces and municipalities." 

The University of Toronto study authors say their findings point to a need to think about a wider variety of workplaces when regulating chemicals. 

Fundamentally, we want action from the industry to make safer products.- Miriam Diamond

Asked if it would take steps to respond to the findings, Ontario's Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development said in a statement to CBC that it funded the study and is reviewing the results.

The statement also said, in part, that its occupational health and safety strategy includes plans to enhance work on the prevention of occupational illnesses.

Diamond said she and her colleagues hope research like theirs leads to safer products at all points in the supply chain, from chemical manufacturers to companies that formulate nail products and those that sell them to salons. 

"Fundamentally, we want action from the industry to make safer products."


Written by Brandie Weikle. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin.

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