Good or bad, odor reveals little about salon air quality. Even if your salon rates "sweet" on the smell scale with employees or clients, depend on more reliable measures than your nose to rate your salon's air quality.
Acrylic monomer, acetone, nail polish — nail salons are notorious for their distinctive acrid odors. However, industrial hygienists and other health experts attest that bad-smelling air isn’t necessarily bad for you.
Indeed, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA) and other government and private agencies have tested air quality in numerous nail salons in response both to public complaints and requests from salon professionals.
“We have a long history of complaints about nail salons in terms of odors,” says an industrial hygienist with OSHA, which has established permissible exposure levels (PELs) for most chemicals used as ingredients in nail products. PELs are established by determining the concentration of a chemical in the air that will cause ill health effects; OSHA then pads the concentration so that the PEL is lower than the concentration known to have adverse effects. According to the OSHA spokesperson, air samples from nail salons rarely exceed OSHA’s PELs for any one chemical.
“A strong smell of artificial nail products and acetone doesn’t mean the chemical levels in the air are a health concern,” agrees Chris Godwin, Ph.D., a research assistant for the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health, at the University of Michigan. According to Godwin, many ingredients used in nail products have a low odor threshold. In other words, they offend the nose long before they so much as hurt a hair on your head.
Air Quality: a Cloudy Issue
Don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet, however.“Our PELs are high, and there are many different chemicals used in salons,” explains the OSHA spokesperson. While no single chemical exceeds its PEL, she says, the particular combination of products used in a salon may combine to create an air pollutant.
According to Publication 400 of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ department of labor and workforce development, division of occupational safety, the acrylates in acrylic monomers as well as the volatile organic solvents (VOCs) in polishes and other nail products, can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Research also has associated nail product ingredients with occupational asthma. At high exposure levels — much, much higher than found in the salon environment — some of these same chemicals may adversely affect the nervous and reproductive systems.
But Godwin and other air quality experts agree that offensive odor, headaches, and skin irritation are by far the most significant concern for nail techs. Nor are salons unique in terms of endangered indoor air quality (IAQ). “The majority of health problems fall under the definition of ‘sick building syndrome,’” Godwin explains. Sick building syndrome is a term used to describe a group of non-specific health complaints — such as headaches, poor concentration, fatigue, dry, itchy skin, burning, itchy eyes, nausea, a hoarse voice, and cough — that can’t be linked to a particular cause.
“In sick building syndrome situations, you’ll have [people who suffer from] four to five of those symptoms with no obvious cause.” In such situations, he says, air testing doesn’t reveal elevated levels of chemicals and the fresh air supply is adequate.
Currently, concern about IAQ outpaces knowledge about it. In addition to the innumerable factors that can impact air quality in general, Godwin explains that indoor environments are as individually unique as people. In other words, the same-sized salon with the same number of nail techs servicing the same number of clients with the same products may cause health complaints in nail techs in one of the locations but not the other. Likewise, some people are more sensitive to poor air quality just as others are more vulnerable to, say, cold viruses.
Even so, experts urge salon owners to take IAQ seriously whether or not nail techs or clients complain of symptoms. “Salons use many different products, so you have to consider that it’s not just the raw chemicals in the air, but the chemical reactions that can occur,” asserts Nellie Brown, a certified industrial hygienist and statewide director of the workplace health and safety program at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in New York.
Brown, who has studied salon industry health concerns for almost 20 years, advises owners and nail techs to take steps to ensure good air quality regardless of odor levels or complaints of symptoms. To minimize chemicals in the air, she advises starting at the source.
“Follow the general idea of a hierarchy of [air quality] controls: source control of pollutants, ventilation, then personal protection,” Brown says. Start by evaluating work habits and creating a “healthy air” checklist: Cap product containers tightly when not in use, use pump dispensers or dappen dishes for liquid products, and use covered trash cans and change the plastic liners regularly.
Filing dust is another significant salon air contaminant. If any nail techs in your salon use a file or drill for anything more than smoothing and buffing the nail surface, diplomatically make them aware of the connection between air quality and filing dust. Also be prepared to provide training to refine sculpting skills so that less filing is required.