Working Healthy

Know the Warning Signs of Chemical Sensitivity

Tired and cranky? Bothered by headaches, nausea, or blurred vision? It may be you’re sensitive to the chemicals you work with. Short of entering a plastic bubble, learn how to protect yourself from chemical overexposure.

illustration/Quinn Kaneko
<p>illustration/Quinn Kaneko</p>

Two years after entering nail care, Maggie Boyd started having blurred vision. Even though an optometrist said her eyes  were fine, she purchased a pair of reading glasses at a drugstore so she could see her clients’ nails more clearly. And, though she didn’t connect it with her blurred vision, she found she was more irritable than usual. As time went on, she was plagued by headaches and nausea and was constantly irritable with coworkers and family alike.

“I had hormone tests done and my blood sugar levels checked and they were all fine,” remembers Boyd. But all was not fine. By 1989, she could no longer smell the acrylic products she worked with and had severe headaches after a seven- hour day in the salon.

“By then I had read enough to think something was chemically wrong with me. So I pulled all the high-odor products out of my salon. I am much nicer now and I don’t have headaches,” says Boyd.

Boyd suffered from chemical sensitivity. While many technicians recognize that they are sensitive to certain products and can avoid a physical reaction by using alternatives, others are so sensitive to all products – experiencing symptoms such as headaches, nausea, irritability, fatigue, insomnia, shortness of breath, sore throat, and a persistent cough – that they fall into the category of hypersensitivity.

Boyd’s condition was aggravated by the odor of her products. Although the odor is not a measure of a product’s toxicity, and avoiding odor doesn’t reduce one’s prosperity to become sensitive to chemicals, some techs find that the smell is the worst part.

Although by no means new to the salon industry, chemical sensitivity is gaining nationwide recognition with the emergence of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition that starts with a sensitivity to one chemical and can lead to a sensitivity to many chemicals. Doctors, politicians, and lawyers debate the condition’s validity, but the chemical and air quality experts NAILS interviewed agree that some people are at higher risk for developing a sensitivity to chemicals. Happily, our experts also agree that there are precautions salon owners and nail technicians can tale to minimize the risk of becoming sensitive. And, everything done to protect the small percentage of hypersensitive people also creates a healthier environment for everyone.


Anyone exposed to high levels of chemical for a short time or low levels for a long risks developing a sensitivity to them. “One of the things we’ve found is that there are two basic ways to become sensitized. The first way is by being exposed to a large dose of a chemical substance over a short period of time. The second way is a low dose over a long period. It’s similar to the triggering mechanism of an allergy,” explains Mark Sneller, Ph.D., of Aero-Allergen Research, an air quality consulting firm in Tucson, Ariz.

Nail technicians usually fall in the second category; they are exposed to low doses of chemicals every day. Over time, they can develop a sensitivity to those chemicals. However, susceptibility or exposure doesn’t necessarily mean person will develop hypersensitivity, it only means they can. Though no accepted explanation has been found for MCS, it is accepted the people who develop hypersensitivity have a lower threshold of resistance to chemical exposure that the average person.

“If you look at a range of people and how they respond to chemicals, you find 10% to 15% who will respond at lower than the average range,” explains Nellie Brow, western regional director of the Cornell University Chemical Hazard Information Program in Buffalo, N.Y. For example, if most people react to a chemical in doses at  1 parts per million, people with sensitivity to chemical may react at 0.5 parts per million.

Says Brown, “I’ve had people exposed to levels that Wouldn’t violate any recommendations, but they are experiencing measurable effects on their body. Just because the amount of chemical present is below recommended levels doesn’t mean it can’t affect them. We just don’t know why they respond at those lower levels.”

Brown emphasizes that there is no need for nail care professionals to panic and look for another career. Based on her estimates, only 10% to 15% of nail technicians are even likely to develop a chemical sensitivity, and only a small percentage of them are going to experience physical problems. “It is all a projection based on what we know about people. I don’t want people to get the impression that they are set up to get this,” she says.

Doug Schoon, a chemist and executive director of Chemical Awareness Training Service in Newport Beach, Calif., explains: “Our bodies are pretty tough. Even the most sensitive person has a pretty strong immune system, unless they have an immune deficiency. Our body has dozens and dozens of ways to capture and deactivate a sensitizer.”


A chemical sensitivity is not the same as an allergy, although both are the body’s physical reaction to a foreign substance. An allergy can be measured by the level of IgE, a component of the human body’s immune system. Persons with chemical sensitivity usually have normal IgE levels, which leads some experts to reject chemical sensitivity as a valid medical problem. Others argue that researchers just haven’t found the right measuring stick for MCS.

“Allergies themselves have a long history of voodooism,” asserts Mary Lamielle, president of the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies (NCEHS) in Voorhees, N.J., adding that doctors have been able to measure the body’s response to allergens for only 20 to 30 years. She firmly believes that chemicals are having a measurable effect on MCS sufferers, but that no one has yet come up with a way to quantify it.

Sneller adds: “Chemical sensitivity cannot be measured in the body because there is no real immune system response. You won’t break out in hives when you come near the chemical and you won’t get stuffy sinuses. You might get dizzy or have headaches. In general, chemical sensitivity involves more than one organ system. This means it can affect the nervous system as well as the muscular system, and it may affect the cardiovascular system.”

An important difference between a chemical sensitivity and a chemical allergy is that a person who is allergic to one chemical is not destined to develop an allergy to other chemicals. On the other hand, people who develop a sensitivity to one chemical will develop a sensitivity to many, says Lamielle.

This was partly true for Boyd. While she did not develop a sensitivity to other chemicals, she could no longer tolerate acrylic fumes. She switched to a low-odor product system and has since had no problems.

Earon Davis, an environmental health consultant based in Evanston, Ill., dismisses the need to identify the whys and wherefores of chemical sensitivity and argues for steps to combat and prevent it. “What’s interesting in this whole debate is that [MCS] is not new to salons. People who run hair salons have dealt with this for decades. They have workers who’ve had to quit and patrons who’ve had to stop coming.”


The study of chemical sensitivity has earned the attention or researchers as more and more people report symptoms. Some government agencies and medical associations recognize MCS as a valid medical problem, while others discount it as a psychological disorder. But just like chronic fatigue syndrome, the roots of the problem are less important to its sufferers than finding a cure.

Judy Anderson, a former nail technician from Lad Vegas, Nev., had severe symptoms associated with MCS. In her case, she didn’t recognize the warning signs of chemical overexposure and ignored them until it was too late.

Anderson says, “My health deteriorated over several months and I went to doctors who told me to stop working in the field, but I told myself ‘I like the field and I can overcome this.’ “What did she do to overcome it? After eight months, her symptoms – breathing problems, rashes, chronic fatigue, headaches, burning eyes – became so severe that she had to leave salon work. It may have been too late, however, since Anderson is now homebound because her sensitivity to chemical is so severe.

Joanne Miller, a former hairstylist from Cleveland, Ohio, is also adjusting to a drastic change in lifestyle brought on by chemical hypersensitivity.

“I was working 65 hours a week and had worked in a salon for 23 years. I have been inundated with chemicals. I am so sensitive now that I can’t go into the salon for more than an hour and a half,” she says.

“I have seven doctors. My allergy specialist says I’m hypersensitive to the salon chemicals. The doctors don’t have any way of measuring it. They are only into things they can see and give you a pill for,” she notes wryly. Boyd, more fortunate that the other two, responded to her symptoms early enough and made changes in her salon environment. So far, she has had no further health problems. She does, however, still have to wear glasses.


As reports of chemical sensitivity have increased, and television, newspapers, and magazines have latched onto the issue, MCS seems to be a new and growing concern. However, Brown says it’s not new at all, it’s just changing. “Chemicals were different before and most of our real exposures in the past were very high, so high that we saw some serious health effects,” she says.

“For the most part, we’ve reduced our exposure to chemicals. Now we’re seeing long-term exposure at lower levels,” she says, adding that long-term effects are not as well understood.

Lamielle attributes increased reports of chemical sensitivity in part to news coverage. “Visibility through the media has allowed sufferers to identify their symptoms. We’re dealing with 70,000 chemical in our daily life.

Reducing your risk for developing chemical sensitivity in the salon involves the same precautions that you would take to avoid developing other serious health problems as well – good ventilation and understanding the chemicals you work with (see “Stop Problems Before They Start” on page 84). If you can’t justify the investment of fitting your salon with the proper ventilation equipment, make it part of your marketing budget for the year. Consider what great word-of-mouth referrals you’ll get when your current clients tell their friends that not only do you do great nails, but your salon doesn’t reek of chemical odors either.


Not one person interviewed for this article, even the cosmetologists and nail technicians who are suffering from the symptoms, directly blame the products they work with for their condition. Instead, they all point to poor ventilation and sloppy work habits. This is good news for nail technicians, because while you can’t avoid working with chemicals in this business, you can improve ventilation and your work habits.

The biggest factor in reducing your risk for developing chemical hypersensitivity is having adequate ventilation. Nellie Brown, western regional director of the Cornell University Chemical Hazard Information Program, recommends a local exhaust system that has a duct near each station to pull out old air and a vent above each station that infuses new air into the salon. “So much of the time people think they’re getting proper ventilation, when in fact the room air is recirculated,” she notes.

Recirculated air is air that has been pulled out of the salon through an intake vent, forced through a filtered ventilation unit, and returned to the room. In this age of energy efficiency, recirculated air is a common method of ventilation. But in salons, if old air is not pulled out of the salon and fresh air brought in, chemical fumes can build up.

Brown also recommends checking to make sure your ventilation unit is running at maximum capacity is sufficient for the salon’s ventilation needs. If your ventilation unit can only support five people doing nails in your salon, don’t add a sixth technician until you upgrade the system.

For employees who feel their salon’s ventilation us inadequate, environmental health consultant Earon Davis recommends being diplomatic when you discuss it with the salon owner. “I’ve seen it become a power struggle between the owner, who thinks the air is fine, and the worker, who claims an illness, see what can be done to improve the air by experimenting and exploring options.”

Says nail technician and salon owner Maggie Boyd: “I don’t want to see my industry be an industry where we have to wear face masks and gloves. Losing that contact when you’re holding hands and putting a mask over your expression are probably the least expensive ways of taking care of it. But I want my services to be high technology and high personality, because that’s what it’s all about.” That’s why Boyd is installing a local exhaust system in her new salon.

Before balking at the cost (which may not be as high as you think), look at it as an investment. If your salon has clean air, you’ll have less employee absenteeism and happier clients. “With all the environmental awareness campaigns nowadays,” says Davis, “salon owners could market their salon as a ‘clean air salon’.”

Other sensible precautions are to know the products you work with by reading the labels for handling instructions and warnings. Keep MSDS for each product and read them. Although they may be aimed at people with higher exposures than you will face in the salon, MSDS do tell you what the symptoms of overexposure to that product are.

Also, keep products cool and covered when you’re not using them so that they won’t evaporate into the air. Close bottles tightly after each use and only pour enough liquid into the dappen dish for the service you’re doing. Not only will your air be less polluted, you’ll find that products stay fresh longer.

Former nail technician, Judy Anderson also recommends against 10- and 12-hour days, a norm for many nail technicians. If you find you have to work long hours each day, give your system a rest by stepping outside occasionally and breathing fresh air.


  1. Do strong product odors linger for more than 10 minutes after use?
  2. If someone uses a strong-smelling product, can people on the other side of the salon detect the odor?
  3. Can you smell product odors when you open the shop in the morning?
  4. Do the walls ever “sweat” with moisture or do the windows fog?
  5. Do any employees frequently complain of one or more of the following symptoms: headaches, dry or sore throats, blurry vision, watery eyes, insomnia, irritability, nausea, dizziness, cough, a runny or bloody nose, sneezing, tingling toes or fingers, drowsiness, chest aches or pains, shortness of breath, loss of coordination or appetite?
  6. Do your clients ever complain about offensive odors?
  7. Do you ever open the windows or door because the odors become too strong?
  8. Do strong odors no longer bother you, or have you become unaware of them?
  9. Do you get funny tastes in your mouth or does food lack flavor?




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