Products used in nail salons may contain chemicals that can affect worker health. Using these products can expose nail salon workers to chemicals. Workers may breathe in the harmful vapors, dusts, or mists; get the product on their skin or in their eyes; or swallow the product if it is accidentally transferred onto food or cigarettes.
Working in a nail salon exposes workers to many different chemicals each day. These exposures can "add up," especially when many products are being used at the same time, the products are used day after day, or when there is poor ventilation in the salon. When this happens, workers can get sick. Many nail salon workers also work long hours, which adds to the amount of time they may be exposed to chemicals. These types of exposures may make workers sick immediately or cause effects over time.
Chemical exposures can be controlled. The information below will help you find out what chemicals are in your salon’s products and what steps you can take to reduce exposures and protect worker health. You can find more specific information about the chemicals in your workplace from the material safety data sheets (MSDS) that manufacturers are required to provide for potentially hazardous salon products.
Hazardous Chemicals Found in Nail Salon Products
Products used in nail salons can contain many chemicals that can have serious health effects.
Some potentially hazardous chemicals, the types of products they can be found in, and how they can affect a worker include:
- Acetone (nail polish remover): headaches; dizziness; and irritated eyes, skin, and throat.
- Acetonitrile (fingernail glue remover): irritated nose and throat; breathing problems; nausea; vomiting; weakness; and exhaustion.
- Butyl acetate (nail polish, nail polish remover): headaches and irritated eyes, skin, nose, mouth, and throat
- Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), (nail polish): nausea and irritated eyes, skin, nose, mouth, and throat. Long-term exposures to high concentrations may cause other serious effects.
- Ethyl acetate (nail polish, nail polish remover, fingernail glue): irritated eyes, stomach, skin, nose, mouth, and throat; high levels can cause fainting.
- Ethyl methacrylate (EMA), (artificial nail liquid): asthma; irritated eyes, skin, nose, and mouth; difficulty concentrating. Exposures while pregnant may affect your child.
- Formaldehyde (nail polish, nail hardener): difficulty breathing, including coughing, asthma-like attacks, and wheezing; allergic reactions; irritated eyes, skin, and throat. Formaldehyde can cause cancer.
- Isopropyl acetate (nail polish, nail polish remover): sleepiness, and irritated eyes, nose, and throat.
- Methacrylic acid (nail primer): skin burns and irritated eyes, skin, nose, mouth, and throat. At higher concentrations, this chemical can cause difficulty breathing.
- Methyl methacrylate (MMA), (artificial nail products, though banned for use in many states): asthma; irritated eyes, skin, nose, and mouth; difficulty concentrating; loss of smell.
- Quaternary ammonium compounds (disinfectants): irritated skin and nose and may cause asthma.
- Toluene (nail polish, fingernail glue): dry or cracked skin; headaches, dizziness, and numbness; irritated eyes, nose, throat, and lungs; damage to liver and kidneys; and harm to unborn children during pregnancy.
For a broader list of potentially dangerous chemicals that may be found in nail salons, read EPA's Protecting the Health of Nail Salon Workers (PDF).
Workers need to report any health problems they think are from the products they use in the workplace to their employer and doctor. Employers must follow up on reports of health problems from workers.
Where to Find Information about the Chemicals Found in Nail Salon Products
Product information is available on packaging, or in printed materials delivered with the product such as material safety data sheets.
At minimum, professional-use nail salon products must provide the following information:
- The name and address of the product manufacturer or distributor.
- An identity statement explaining the type and use of the product through use of name, descriptor, or illustration;
- Facts about the product, such as directions for safe use if a product could be unsafe if used incorrectly; and
- All necessary warning and caution statements.
Material Safety Data Sheets (often called "MSDS")
OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard requires product manufacturers to provide salon owners with a safety data sheet (MSDS) for each product used in the salon that may contain a hazardous chemical at 1% or more (or at 0.1% or more for chemicals that may cause cancer) or that could be released into the air above limits set by OSHA or the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). The MSDS explains the health risks of the product and lists precautions for worker protection. In general, the MSDS must provide information about:
- Hazardous ingredients in the product;
- How users can be exposed to the ingredients;
- Health and safety risks to users when using the product; and
- Precautions for safely using and storing the product, including what to do in emergencies.
OSHA recently published an update to its Hazard Communications Standard, changing the classification of chemicals, labeling, and safety data sheet requirements so that they align with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). Refer to OSHA's Hazard Communication page to get more information about these changes and when they will go into effect. One of the changes to the standard is changing "Material Safety Data Sheet" to "Safety Data Sheet" (SDS). SDSs will generally contain the same information as MSDSs, but all information will be presented in a standard format.
Employers should read each MSDS and make sure they understand them. They must also make the MSDSs available to their workers, such as nail technicians, in a place near the product so workers can conveniently access the information. Employers are also required to provide information and training to all workers who use the product about the chemical's potential hazards and how to use the product safely.
Steps to Prevent Exposures and Protect Worker Health
Employers and workers can take steps to protect health when working with products that contain potentially hazardous chemicals.
Choose Safer Products and Read about the Products Being Used
- Whenever possible, use products with the least hazardous chemicals in them.
- 3-free: Some products now claim to be made without the "toxic trio" (toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate). These products are called "3-free" products.
- Acid free: Some primers claim to be made without chemicals like methacrylic acid. These are labeled "acid free."
- For any product used in your salon, be aware of the health effects it may cause and how to prevent overexposure.
- Always read product labels and MSDSs and follow manufacturers' instructions when using all nail salon products, including those labeled as "free" of hazardous chemicals. MSDSs may not contain all of the information needed to adequately protect yourself, e.g., the manufacturer may state "wear impervious gloves" without specifying the type of glove material needed.
Ventilate the Room to Remove Chemicals in the Air
Ventilation is the best way to lower the level of chemicals in a salon!
NIOSH laboratory tests (PDF) indicate that exhaust ventilation systems may reduce worker chemical exposure in nail salons by at least 50% .
These steps really help improve worker health:
- Let in fresh air, when possible, by opening doors and windows. If the salon has a ceiling vent, it should be turned on and working.
- Always keep the nail salon's exhaust system on.
- If your salon does not have an exhaust system, always keep the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system on during work hours. The HVAC thermostat fan switch should always be in the "on" position (not "auto") so that it runs even when the heat or air conditioner is off. The salon owner should have a HVAC contractor clean the HVAC system and replace the filters at least once a year.
- Install exhaust fans wherever possible. Place fans near open doors or windows. Fans should pull air in one end of the salon and push it out of the other end.
- If the salon has ventilated tables, make sure they are turned on. Also, change the charcoal filters at least once a month and clean out the catch basin at least once a week.
- Consider using portable ventilation machines to remove dust and chemicals directly from the work area.
Use Safe Work Practices to Avoid Regular and Accidental Exposures
- Label chemicals moved from large bottles to smaller bottles with the information from the manufacturer's label.
- Close bottles tightly when they are not being used so the product does not spill or get into the air.
- Use metal trash cans with tight, self-closing lids to keep the nail products soaked on cotton balls and other trash from evaporating and getting into the salon's air.
- Put cotton balls and other soaked materials into the trash cans immediately.
- If you do not have metal trash cans with self-closing lids, put cotton balls and soaked materials in a sealed bag before putting them in the trash can and keep the trash covered.
- Empty trash cans often and remove from the work area to the outside garbage at the end of each day.
- Use only the amount of product you need to perform services. When possible, do not keep extra product at workstations.
- Follow instructions for safely disposing of used chemicals. DO NOT pour them down the sink or toilet, throw them on the ground or down outside drains, or pour them onto cotton balls.
- Some chemicals have specific disposal requirements. For example, used liquid acetone must be saved in a fire department-approved metal container and disposed of as hazardous waste.
- Wash your hands before eating, drinking, applying cosmetics, and smoking.
- Keep food and drink covered at all times, and do not store or eat food in work areas.
Keep Products Off of Skin and Out of Eyes
- Wear long-sleeved shirts to protect your arms and pants or skirts that are at least knee-length to protect your lap from acrylic nail and other dusts.
- Wash your hands before and after working on clients; before eating, drinking, applying cosmetics, or smoking; and after handling or transferring products.
- Wear goggles and the appropriate type of disposable gloves when handling and transferring products. For example, nitrile gloves protect against many chemicals used in nail salon products, but latex or vinyl gloves are appropriate when handling acetone.
- Replace gloves immediately if there are cuts, tears, or holes in them.
- Cover and protect cuts or cracks in your skin. Damaged skin can increase chemical absorption and exposure.
- Do not continue to use a product if there are visible signs of skin irritation immediately after exposure to the product or from previous exposure to the product.
- Note that if your hands display signs of irritation, you should examine your gloves to make sure they are intact and properly protecting your skin.
Determine if Respiratory Protection if Needed
Respirators protect against breathing in hazardous gases and vapors (such as formaldehyde) and particulates (such as dusts, germs, and viruses). Employers must evaluate worker exposure to dust and/or chemical vapors, determine if the levels in the work place are a risk to workers, and decide if respirators are required to protect workers. Small employers can get help with this process from OSHA's free On-site Consultation Program (PDF*). Other groups that can help include an employer's private insurance carrier, professional associations, and private industrial hygiene consulting firms.
Most work in a nail salon will not require respiratory protection; good ventilation and good work practices should keep exposure to gases, vapors, and particulates to a minimum. However, when respiratory protection is required, employers must implement a respiratory protection program that meets the requirements in OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134. This program must include proper respirator selection, fit testing, medical evaluations, and training. Workers may also decide that they want to wear a respirator while transferring chemicals or buffing and filing nails, in which case the employer may also have responsibilities under OSHA's Respiratory Protection standard.
Types of Respirators that May Be Used in Nail Salons
- Filtering facepiece respirators (often called "N95s" or dust masks): Only use N95s that are NIOSH-approved. N95s protect workers from particulates, such as dust, viruses, and other germs, and are helpful when buffing or filing nails or using acrylic power. They do not protect workers from vapors or gases, such as hazardous chemicals. Employers who allow their employees to wear this type of respirator voluntarily must give their employees Appendix D of the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard. This appendix has certain requirements that include training and medical evaluation.
- Half-facepiece elastomeric respirators with cartridges: These respirators can protect workers from hazardous gases and vapors (such as formaldehyde) when performing tasks such as moving chemicals from large bottles to smaller bottles and cleaning up large spills. Using this type of mask requires that the employer implement a respiratory protection program under OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134. This standard has certain requirements that include training and fit testing. In addition, employers must evaluate the appropriate cartridge for the job, provide the cartridge to workers, and inform workers of how and when to change cartridges.
Resources on Chemicals in Nail Salon Products
Resources on How to Prevent Exposures and Protect Worker Health
- Health Hazards in Nail Salons Presentation (PPT*). OSHA. Training presentation that summarizes the information on OSHA’s "Health Hazards in Nail Salons" webpage. Included information about the potential health hazards to nail technicians and other workers, and precautions that employers and workers can take to reduce exposures, injuries, and illnesses.
- Stay Healthy and Safe While Giving Manicures and Pedicures: A Guide for Nail Salon Workers (PDF*). Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP), University of California, Berkeley and the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative.
- Tips on Worker Safety (PDF*). Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) and California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. Provides general tips for staying safe and healthy while working in nail salons. Also available in Vietnamese (PDF*).
- Controlling Chemical Hazards During the Application of Artificial Fingernails. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Describes how workers can prevent some of the potential adverse health effects of applying artificial fingernails.
- An Evaluation of Local Exhaust Ventilation Systems for Controlling Hazardous Exposures in Nail Salons (PDF). National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). In-depth report on a laboratory research project to evaluate the effectiveness of local exhaust ventilation controls such as ventilation table and portable ventilation devices in preventing worker exposure to chemicals in nail salons.
- Healthy Practices for Nail Salons Video. King County Local Hazardous Waste Management Program. Describes healthy operating procedures for nail salon workers.
- How to Be Safe at Work (PDF). Oregon OSHA and Oregon Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. Gives tips on how to prevent overexposure to chemicals in nail salons.
- How to Handle Nail Salon Waste in King County (PDF). King County Local Hazardous Waste Management Program. Describes how to properly handle nail salon waste.
- Nail Technicians' Health and Workplace Exposure Control. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Workplace Safety and Health Topic. Lists research and publications helpful to preventing injuries and illnesses while working in nail salons.
- Safe Nail Salon Training (in English and Vietnamese). Boston Public Health Commission. English language training presentation that teaches nail salon owners and workers to recognize workplace hazards, protect health, make improvements to eliminate hazards, and properly use and store hazardous chemicals.
- Safe Nail Salons: Keeping You and Your Customers Healthy. Boston Public Health Commission. Describes nail salon health and safety measures in video format (in Vietnamese with English subtitles).
- Will You Try These Ways to Protect Your Customers and Your Health? [English] (PDF). King County Local Hazardous Waste Management Program, Environmental Coalition of South Seattle, and Community Coalition for Environmental Justice. Gives a brief overview of several measures to protect nail salons workers' health. Also available in Vietnamese.
- Guidelines for Controlling and Minimizing Inhalation Exposure to Nail Products. Describes over exposure to chemicals, provides information on ventilation and dust masks, and lists important points for workers and employers to remember.
- Guidelines for Controlling and Minimizing Skin Exposure to Nail Products. Describes skin exposure and reactions, provides information on gloves and hand washing, and lists important points for workers and employers to remember.
General Information on Nail Salon Safety and Health
- California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative's mission is to assure healthy and safe working environments for nail salon workers. This website lists research and outreach publications related to its mission.
- Oregon Collaborative for Healthy Nail Salons (OCHNS). The Oregon Collaborative for Healthy Nail Salons is an organization that works to improve the workplace health of nail salon workers. This website provides information and outreach publications related to its mission.
- Safe Nail Salon Project. Boston Public Health Commission. The goal of the Boston Safe Nail Salons Project is to protect workers and the public from exposure to hazardous chemicals and air pollution in nail salons.
- Safety and Health Hazards in Nail Salons (PDF). Oregon OSHA Fact Sheet Plus. Describes the potential hazards of chemicals used in nail salons and what workers and nail salon owners can do to minimize exposure.
- Asthma and Allergies. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Workplace Safety and Health Topic. Gives information about workplace conditions that can cause occupational asthma and how to prevent occupational asthma.
- Dermal Exposure Safety and Health Topics Page. OSHA. Gives information about chemicals that can cause damage to skin and chemicals that can enter the body through intact skin and cause other harmful effects.
- Health Hazard Evaluation, The Grand Experience Salon (PDF). National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), (1998). Describes a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigation of the hazards found inside a specific nail salon and recommendations for preventing those hazards.
- Health Hazard Evaluation, Haute Nails (PDF). National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), (1992). Describes a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigation of the hazards found inside a specific nail salon and recommendations for preventing those hazards.
- Health Hazard Evaluation, Tina and Angela's Nail Salon (PDF). National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), (1992). Describes a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigation of the hazards found inside a specific nail salon and recommendations for preventing those hazards.
- Indoor Air Quality Safety and Health Topics Page. OSHA. Gives information about the hazards in an indoor work environment and how to reduce exposure to them.
- Indoor Environmental Quality. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Workplace Safety and Health Topics. Gives information about the hazards in an indoor work environment and how to reduce exposure to them.
- Occupational Asthma Safety and Health Topics Page. OSHA. Gives safety and health information about the causes and health effects of occupational asthma and possible solutions.
- Personal Protective Equipment Safety and Health Topics Page. OSHA. Gives safety and health information about personal protective equipment (PPE) that is designed to prevent or lessen the severity of injuries to workers when other solutions are unavailable or do not help to lessen exposures to acceptable levels.
- Ventilation Safety and Health Topics Page. OSHA. Gives safety and health information about ventilation in the workplace. Ventilation is one of the most common engineering controls used to control chemical hazards in the workplace.
Help for Nail Salon Owners and Employers
- Hazard Communication. OSHA. Describes manufacturers' and employers' responsibilities to provide information about the identities and hazards of chemicals used in the workplace.
- Respirator Selection Logic (PDF). National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), (2004). Provides guidance on the selection of appropriate respirators for specific work environments.
- Small Business. OSHA. Provides links to many OSHA resources and information specifically for smaller employers, including safety and health tools and publications, easy-to-follow guides for specific OSHA standards, and descriptions of benefits that small businesses receive from OSHA.
Across the country, advocate organizations and local governments are working together to help prevent chemical exposures and protect worker health by developing programs that encourage the use of less toxic products and safer practices in nail salons. In California, several counties and cities are implementing Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Programs that recognize salons that use less toxic polishes and other nail salon products, improve ventilation, and participate in trainings that focus on best practices for a healthier workplace. Visit cahealthynailsalons.org to find out more about these innovative programs.
Click here for more information on the programs in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Alameda County (PDF), and San Mateo County.
Toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate are sometimes referred to in the industry as the "toxic trio".
Tip: Make sure your doctor or healthcare provider knows what kind of work you do and the chemicals you use. Tell them if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
Do not use surgical masks. These types of masks, even when stuffed with tissues, do not protect workers from breathing in gases, vapors, or particulates.