Is the salon a safe environment for a pregnant woman? Most expectant mothers’ health concerns fall into two main categories: exposure and ergonomics. Both are valid. Chemicals in the salon are known allergens with documented reports of adverse side effects. Inadequate work spaces, coupled with the exhaustion of a long work day, create conditions that can force the body into positions that cause chronic pain. That certainly doesn’t sound like it would be good for the baby.
But here’s the thing: It’s not good for the mother either. There are important salon safety standards that every nail tech should heed — whether she’s working to protect one body or two.
“Women should protect themselves from exposure whether they are pregnant or not,” says Dr. Anthony Scialli, a specialist in reproductive and developmental toxicology and Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at George Washington University School of Medicine. “In general, the embryo and fetus are not the most sensitive parts of a mother,” he says. Adhering to safety guidelines that protect the mother’s respiratory tract, kidney, and liver “will generally be sufficient to protect the embryo and fetus,” he explains.
While it’s important to review the ways we can create a healthier environment for clients, techs, and developing baby, it’s just as vital to remember that documented factors outside the salon can also pose an equal or greater risk to a mother’s overall health, respiratory tract, and liver. “The most common known cause of birth defects and other childhood disabilities is alcohol, and cigarette smoking is a life-long risk to health that also has consequences during pregnancy,” says Dr. Scialli.
OSHA lists a dozen “potentially hazardous chemicals” that a nail tech is likely to be exposed to on any given day. These include acetone, butyl acetate, ethyl methacrylate, isopropyl acetate, and others. Meanwhile, “potentially hazardous” does not automatically translate to a health crisis. It simply means it is wise to take precautions while using these products. Beyond those listed under OSHA’s Guidelines for Nail Salon Workers, techs will come into contact with chemicals used in common cleaners and disinfectants as they clean surfaces, tools, and pedicure bowls. All chemicals should be approached with the goal of limiting exposure.
Women who are pregnant can become highly sensitive to smells. Familiar and even welcome smells can suddenly cause nausea and headaches. But it’s not the odor that causes the safety concern. The concern is the vapors chemicals release, because the danger is in inhaling those fumes. And be aware: Women shouldn’t be inhaling those fumes at all — regardless of whether they are pregnant or not.
Mothertobaby.org is a service of the non-profit Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS). OTIS provides evidence-based information on the safety of medications and other exposures during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. An entire section of their “resource vault” is dedicated to the effects medications, herbal products, and vaccines have on pregnancy. They also have FAQ sheets addressing occupational exposures, with one devoted to salon workers entitled “Working in a Nail Salon.”
Mothertobaby.org notes some salons have higher-than-recommended levels of formaldehyde, and methyl methacrylate has also been measured in the air of nail salons. Those levels come from vapors that release chemicals into the air. This should serve as a warning to nail techs that ventilation is essential. Approach vapor removal using a three-pronged protection plan.
First, confirm the HVAC system in your building is working properly and all filters are clean. Doug Schoon, founder of Schoon Scientific + Regulatory Consulting, reminds techs that “circulating is not ventilation.” A properly functioning HVAC system isn’t sufficient to ventilate the salon. Along with an adequate HVAC system, it’s essential to capture the vapors at the desk level upon their release. Once captured, vapors should be sucked or “vacuumed” away from the tech’s breathing area and released outside the salon.
Second, always keep product capped and covered. Vapors escape in ways we overlook, for example, through the clam-shell cap on a dispenser pump. It’s good practice to cover the whole dispenser during the workday when it’s not in use, as well as when you leave the salon at night.
Finally, don’t overlook garbage. Manicure napkins soaked with gel or monomer tossed into a garbage receptacle allow vapors to fill the salon to levels that can irritate eyes and affect breathing. All garbage containers should be covered at all times — and not with a lid that has space surrounding the entire perimeter of the flip tongue. Invest in quality garbage receptacles. Consider a metal, pedal-operated can with a lid that seals as it closes. Empty it several times a day into a larger receptacle outside the salon. Remove the disposable liner with the last load of discarded napkins and waste at the end of each work day.
A mask that meets N95 standards can offer additional protection when it’s worn during the application process.
These precautions aren’t to prevent vapors from harming the baby. Limiting inhalation of chemical vapors protects your body, including your respiratory tract, which in turn provides a strong, healthy environment for the baby to develop and grow.
Protecting yourself doesn’t end in the salon. Limit your exposure to second-hand smoke, environmental irritants, such as smog, pollution, red tide, and even “welcome” vapors, such as scented candles or air fresheners.
Dust poses a danger both because it can be inhaled and because it can contain uncured monomer that lands on and is absorbed into our skin. Fans that vacuum vapors, dust, and debris away from the working area to the outside are the first line of defense. A second step is to wear gloves and clothes to cover the arms and legs. Understand, the ingredients in salon products are allergens, which means they’ve been known to cause allergies. The risk of developing an allergy is reduced in direct correlation to the amount we allow our skin to come into contact with those chemicals.
Just as pregnancy can cause the body to respond differently to smells, it can also produce a different response to allergens. Skin may be more sensitive, particularly if hormones cause the body temperature to rise. This could cause the immune system to overreact when acrylic dust sticks to skin that is already sweaty, irritated, or inflamed. Protect yourself from this risk by limiting your exposure to the dust and debris from nail services.
“Pregnant women will become uncomfortable more easily with awkward positions, but these positions won’t harm the baby,” says Dr. Scialli. Nonetheless, if a woman already feels uncomfortable with the added weight of the baby and increased pressure on her shoulders and back, an ergonomic workstation that limits rather than exacerbates her pain becomes essential.
Because discomfort increases as pregnancy progresses, techs should stack their schedule with breaks during the day. Get up and move when a client goes to wash her hands, and take the time to stretch periodically. This is good for all techs, since the dangers of sitting for long periods are well documented. Movement can not only increase health benefits, it can also reduce some health issues. “In theory, sitting all day can increase the risk of blood clots during pregnancy,” says Dr. Scialli. He recommends techs flex their ankles and get up often to walk and stretch.
Beyond common concerns voiced about working in the salon while pregnant are less-considered questions only insiders would know to ask.
You know what I mean. How does the stress of chasing the clock all day to stay on time for clients affect the baby? What about techs who don’t schedule time to eat or opt for high-fat, high-sodium fast food or sugary snacks and drinks in an effort to eat something — anything — in the few minutes it takes clients to wash their hands? What issues arise from working longer hours so a client can get in before her vacation?
These are more avoidable risks, and they have nothing to do with chemicals or environmental factors in the salon. These changes can be harder to make, because they are lifestyle patterns and ingrained habits. But they are good to consider. Perhaps, instead of asking if the salon is a safe environment for the baby, it’s time to reframe the question: Are you becoming a safe environment for your baby?
The baby’s exposure is always filtered through you. The best way to reduce what the baby is exposed to in the salon is by reducing your exposure. That begins by following best practices for product use and disposal, for removing dust, debris, and vapors from the salon, and by taking the best possible care of yourself by scheduling regular breaks, eating well, and exercising.
Instead of wondering if pregnancy may preclude you from working, use your energy and resources to create a safe work environment that provides optimal conditions for your best development.
> Do not eat or drink at your work area, which could cause you to inadvertently consume chemicals.
> Bring fresh air into the salon through ventilation and open windows or doors.
> Replace products that can release formaldehyde into the air.