Designed by architect Gary Sadler, SalonSafe is a new product in the source-capture ventilation market and is designed to be an elegant and economical way to comply with 2015 IMC.

Designed by architect Gary Sadler, SalonSafe is a new product in the source-capture ventilation market and is designed to be an elegant and economical way to comply with 2015 IMC.

When Massachusetts-based architect Gary Sadler began designing salons about five years ago, none of his salon owner clients inquired about ventilation. But around the middle of last year, that completely changed. Nowadays, many salon owners initiate conversations about ventilation as an integral component of opening a salon. “Since the New York State governor put a spotlight on it, we’re being asked more and more about ventilation compliance options,” Sadler says.

The recent awareness spike can be traced to May 2015, when The New York Times published a multi-part exposé on salon labor and health practices that may be detrimental to nail techs. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigation caught the attention of New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. Within days, the governor’s office announced the creation of a multi-agency Enforcement Task Force that would “move immediately to prevent unlawful practices and unsafe working conditions in the nail salon industry.” Among other actions detailed in a press release, the task force would “implement new workplace safety regulations for nail salons that require the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) including gloves and face masks where warranted….New regulations will also require each work station to be equipped with personal fans. Laws and regulations regarding ventilation will be strictly enforced.”

By October of 2016, new ventilation standards were in effect for nail salons in New York. In order to receive a permit to open in the state, nail salons’ ventilation must meet the standard set by the 2015 International Mechanical Code (IMC), which states the system must supply fresh outdoor air sufficient to remove all air contaminants from the salon and exhaust them safely outdoors, assure that no exhausted air will be recirculated inside, and requires specific exhaust systems at all workstations. Existing salons have five years to meet the new standards.


Concern Spreads

Local governments throughout the Northeast, as well as in a growing number of other cities throughout the United States, are in tandem becoming stricter on their nail salon ventilation regulations and enforcement. Sadler, for whom mercantile and restaurant clients make up 80% of his business, says, “I tell clients that salon operations are now more akin to a restaurant than a typical mercantile business. Their ventilation requirements and the challenges to implement them into existing spaces are very similar.” Sadler has even launched a new product dubbed “SalonSafe,” a source-capture system that meets 2015 IMC requirements.

Existing nail salon ventilation system manufacturers are fielding increased inquiries as well. “Salon owner awareness and interest in proper salon ventilation continues to accelerate,” says Jeff Cardarella, founder of Aerovex Systems, which has been providing nail salon ventilation since 2001. “The May 2015 New York Times exposé, ‘The Price of Nice Nails,’ along with the new IMC 2015 nail salon ventilation building code requirements, have increased the number of salon ventilation inquiries we receive. Also, the continued efforts of nail salon coalitions, salon safety advocacy, and other recent media coverage has continued to increase salon owners’ awareness and interest in providing proper ventilation.”

At Valentino Beauty Pure, which has provided source-capture ventilation systems since 2011, owner David DiLorenzo says, “We’ve seen a noticeable increase in call, e-mail, and social media messaging regarding source-capture systems in direct relation to this law.” DiLorenzo notes that similar ventilation regulations had been enacted and enforced in other cities, but “since this is now affecting New York and the metropolitan areas where there are a significant number of salons and spas, the increase and awareness has of course also been raised significantly.” He adds, “If you are in an area where the IMC codes are not being enforced, they most likely will be in the near future.”



At this point, if you’re wondering what the “IMC” is or what the codes state, you’re not alone.

The IMC or “International Mechanical Code” is published every three years by the International Code Council, a nonprofit established in 1994 that is dedicated to developing a single set of comprehensive and coordinated national model construction codes, including the IMC, the International Fire Code, the International Plumbing Code, and many others.

The IMC has addressed nail salon ventilation since 2006 (even though most salon owners, and even many building inspectors, were unaware of or disregarded it). Every three years since, and most recently in 2015, the IMC has become more specific on what ventilation should exist in nail salons. The IMC is in use or adopted in 46 states (at the statewide and/or the local level), the District of Columbia, New York City, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. According to a map available at, it is not adopted in California, Hawaii, Vermont, or Maine. Enforcement is handled at the local level, typically with a building inspector issuing a permit to a new business upon confirmation that the business adheres to the locally adopted codes. Since enforcement is left up to each locality, it is inconsistent across the country.

To vent to the outside, a source-capture system must be connected to ductwork, such as in this system in Cleveland’s Reign Salon.

To vent to the outside, a source-capture system must be connected to ductwork, such as in this system in Cleveland’s Reign Salon.

So what does the 2015 IMC require for nail salon ventilation? The relevant codes may be read in full at (see Appendix A), but in a nutshell they require: 

> Source capture of contaminants, odors, vapors, dust, etc. within 12 inches of where the nail work is being done at every manicure and pedicure station;

> Mechanical exhaust at a minimum speed of 50 cubic feet per minute (cfm) per station;

> Source-captured air to be exhausted to the outside of the building, as well as a prohibition on the recirculation of exhausted air.

Though no one at the IMC press office returned a request for comment for this article, it is clear that the codes have gotten more detailed on nail salon requirements with each revision. For example, in the 2012 iteration, the IMC stated that “each nail station” be provided with a source-capture system; by 2015, the IMC specified “manicure and pedicure stations,” closing a loophole that had been used to avoid source-capture installation at pedicure stations. Still, there remains room for interpretation. Cardarella says he has witnessed some municipalities approve ventilation systems that complied with their interpretation of the intent of the codes, even if they did not comply to the letter.


The State of New York

In a press release, Governor Cuomo announced, “New York is taking the lead in creating fair and reasonable rules to protect nail salon workers and customers from dangerous chemicals. This is an industry where workers have long been prone to exploitation and unsafe working conditions — and these regulations are the latest step this administration has taken to right these wrongs and help ensure employees across New York are treated fairly and with dignity.” His announcement was swiftly lauded by groups including the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health and New York New Jersey Regional Joint Board, Workers United, and decried by groups including The Korean-American Nail Salon Association and Chinese Nail Salon Association of East America. Opposition held protests in front of The New York Times headquarters.

The Korean-American Nail Salon Association launched the website, which states on its homepage, “The New York Times exposé made it seem like all nail salons are toxic and treat their workers poorly. That is simply not true, and we want to set the record straight. There’s a lot at stake here, and we appreciate your interest in hearing our perspective to help keep us in business.” would not give an on-the-record interview for this story, but the website states that its concerns include the cost burden for nail salon owners, unfeasibility of venting to the outside in skyscrapers and other locked-in salons, and a belief that the regulations are unnecessary inasmuch as salon owners can self-regulate with regard to “toxic” products that may or may not be proven harmful to health.

Governor Cuomo’s press office states that the state’s rules are fair and reasonable. Frank Sobrino, deputy director of communications for New York City at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, says, “There were two public comment periods, one in 2015 and one in 2016, during which the public was invited to comment on the proposed draft regulations. During the comment periods, a number of individuals and health organizations wrote in support of the ventilation regulations, highlighting the health benefits of the regulations. In addition, the State heard from and consulted with many nail salon owners and salon owner associations. Based on the comments received, the regulations were revised to provide existing salons — those licensed before October 3, 2016 — up to five years to comply with the new regulations.”

The governor’s office also states that the new ventilation regulations are supported by a “Review of Chemicals Used in Nail Salons” report produced by the New York State Department of Health, which found that there are potentially harmful chemicals in nail products that can cause short-term and long-term health consequences for workers. Sobrino says, “The scope of the Department of Health Report focused on summarizing existing information on the types of chemical ingredients found in nail salon products and in the nail salon indoor environment; the potential hazards of chemicals in nail salon products; and the effectiveness of interventions to reduce potential hazards. Peer-reviewed scientific literature and information sources from authoritative health and environmental agencies were reviewed, along with existing laws, regulations, and governmental policies related to nail salon chemicals. In addition to published sources, New York State Department of Health staff consulted subject-matter experts at other state and federal health and environmental agencies. The findings from the review informed the Department of Health’s recommendations by considering whether measures beyond current regulatory requirements were needed to protect nail salon workers and clients.”

When asked whether the state would grant any variances for nail salon owners who make a good-faith effort to comply with the regulations but find them unfeasible (for example, because the salon can’t obtain access to vent to the outside), Sobrino responds, “The Department of State recognizes that it may take several months for new salon owners — those licensed on or after October 3, 2016 — to comply with the new rules. The Department will provide additional time within the adjudication process for new salon owners who are working to upgrade their ventilation systems. Salon owners are encouraged to reach out to the Department for assistance in complying with the ventilation regulation, and may contact their helpline at (518) 474-4429. The Department encourages existing owners to begin to plan for compliance and to contact the Department with any questions.”

Valentino Beauty Pure’s source-capture ventilation contains a 293 cfm fan to remove nail dust and acrylic odor.

Valentino Beauty Pure’s source-capture ventilation contains a 293 cfm fan to remove nail dust and acrylic odor.


A Bit of History

Though the flurry of news headlines may make it seem as though salon air quality is a new worry, the reality is salon ventilation concerns have been raised for decades, even pre-dating the IMC. A 1986 NAILS article titled “Ventilation Guidelines Take Effect in Colorado” addresses many issues that are still relevant today. “One of the first to take definitive action is the Colorado State Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists, which boldly took a major step forward by researching the question of air quality in salons, and by passing ‘Rule 11-A,’ their requirement for ‘adequate ventilation,” the article states. “The Board then took the added step of establishing specific guidelines for salons to follow as a means of complying with Rule 11-A.”

More recently, when NAILS published an article in 2013 titled “You Are Now Entering the Breathing Zone: Salon Ventilation Guide,” a designer for chain Regal Nails shared that “because of the sheer number of salons we have designed in locations all over the country, we have been made aware of the [2012 IMC] code requirements by multiple jurisdictions.”

In late 2013 and early 2014, Utah State Senator Todd Weiler spoke publicly about his belief that nail salons should be exempt from IMC ventilation regulations. “It’s cost prohibitive to run this type of small margin business with these types of industrial requirements,” he said to Deseret News in 2013. In 2014, a state bill he sponsored “Nail Technician Practice Amendments” (S.B. 143) was passed by both houses and signed by Utah’s governor. Weiler did not respond to a request for comment as to relevant regulations post-S.B. 143.

In August of 2016, the Roselle Park (New Jersey) News wrote about a nine-month-plus delay in the opening of Orchid Beauty Salon, which was attributed to the salon owners and the building inspector not being on the same page regarding ventilation. According to the building inspector quoted in the article, the new salon must comply with the 2009 IMC. But the owners had not been required to comply with the IMC for a salon they opened in 2012 because that salon was grandfathered in under a “same use” law (the previous tenant had left sinks and other fixtures in place). As such, the owners did not understand how to comply with the codes in a new space that was a few minutes away from their old space.

In California in 2016, Assemblymember David Chiu authored Assembly Bill 2125, which requires the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to create guidelines for local governments to voluntarily implement Healthy Nail Salon Recognition programs. California Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law, and it goes into effect January 1, 2017. “This bill uses the carrot (incentive approach) and encourages businesses to voluntarily become healthier nail salons, which will help both their workers and their patrons,” said Chiu in a press release. “Nail salons are part of an $8 billion industry in our state, with 80% of nail salon workers being Asian immigrants with limited English skills. There shouldn’t be hidden costs to polished nails, and as San Francisco’s healthy nail salon program says, ‘Pretty Shouldn’t Stink.’”


Vehement Disagreement on Venting to the Outside

In general, experts agree that nail salons should have source-capture ventilation at every manicure and pedicure station to remove air contaminants, but there is a wide divide as to whether that source-captured air is better exhausted to the outside of the building or run through a filter in the unit and the filter-cleaned air exhausted back into the salon. Intensifying the conflict is the significantly different salon owner-borne cost burden between the two methods.

“I don’t think there is a real need to exhaust to the outside of the building,” says Steve Wallace, vice president, marketing and business development, of Medicool Inc., which has been providing salon ventilation for about seven years. “If enforced, it will put many nail salons out of business or force them into the shadows of working out of homes or other buildings. The cost is probably five to 10 times the cost of a standalone unit, and enforcement of standalone units is hitting snags with affordability from nail techs.”


If a small footprint is a priority for your nail salon space, inquire about ceiling-mounted source-capture systems like this one by Aerovex.

If a small footprint is a priority for your nail salon space, inquire about ceiling-mounted source-capture systems like this one by Aerovex.

Dollars and Cents

The cost of a source-capture ventilation system that exhausts air back into the salon is fairly easy to estimate because it’s about the same regardless of building or salon configuration, only varying based by the specific manufacturer and on the system’s exact features. With manufacturer instructions, it’s a do-it-yourself project that costs about $450 to $1,200 per station.

Add venting to the exterior to the mix and the project typically needs to be given to a paid professional such as a mechanical contractor, HVAC contractor, and/or mechanical engineer. And the costs become near impossible to estimate until the contractor sees the space in person and provides a bid.

For example, a cost of $150 buys a salon owner an Aerovex outside ventilation adaptor, but the salon owner must then also pay labor and materials costs to a contractor based on his rates, which will vary by thousands of dollars depending upon the complexity of the installation. Complexity is determined by myriad factors including the placement of ductwork that goes from the interior to the exterior, salon interior configuration (including how close the nail stations are to each other and to where the ductwork will be), and how close the salon itself is to next-door buildings. And that assumes running ductwork to the exterior is possible; some argue the ductwork is impossible in urban areas such as New York City where salons are located in skyscrapers without individual unit roof access and where there is minimal space between buildings.

“The provision for the venting of the nail source-capture system air to the outside is complex and costly for many of nail salons. Interconnecting all the source-capture points to a central exhaust duct system may not be feasible for many of these salons, and assuring that each point will effectively exhaust 50 cfm is an engineering challenge,” Cardarella says. “In many instances it’s either impractical or impossible for salons to vent nail source capture systems to the outside. Additionally, venting unfiltered nail source-capture system air to the outdoors can both create a potential fire hazard should nail dust build up in the ductwork, and chemical vapors/odors could potentially re-enter the building or adjacent buildings through fresh air intakes, if located in close proximity to the unfiltered exhausted air.”

Cardarella recommends that if exterior venting isn’t required by salon’s local township’s building inspector or planning commission, then use of portable units that recirculate clean, filtered exhausted air back into the salon can be used. “This will eliminate piercing through building walls or roof tops and unnecessary, costly, and unsightly ductwork,” he says. He notes that the air should be discharged away from the nail tech and client, for example toward the floor.

Another practical consideration Cardarella notes is, when not attached to ductwork, source-capture units are portable and can be moved from station to station (assuming all nail stations aren’t occupied at once). Once attached to ductwork, the system becomes immobile, thereby resulting in the purchase of more systems than would otherwise be needed.

Though raises concerns that landlords will not be cooperative with ductwork needs for salons to vent to the exterior, architect Sadler says landlord approval is not be an issue. “Generally the owner or landlord share responsibility for providing a safe, code compliant building,” he says. “My experience is showing that landlords aren’t holding back approval for changes like this, but instead, I see them requiring their tenants to use the ‘landlord-approved’ roofer when making new roof penetrations so as not to void any roof warranties.”

When asked for advice for salon owners who are having trouble venting to the outside, such as if the salon is in the center of a mall, Sadler responds, “Code says that the stale, exhausted air cannot be re-circulated back into the salon even if it’s been run through carbon or HEPA filters. The most challenging locations are in multi-story spaces because access through the roof is difficult. But generally there is enough space to exhaust and supply air through an exterior wall. In my experience, malls generally have infrastructure to accommodate access to the exterior.”


Other Zones of Contention

One outspoken opponent to New York’s new ventilation regulations has been New York State Assemblyman Ron Kim. Kim, who represents Queens, New York, did not respond to an interview request for this article but his views have been widely shared in New York-area publications. Kim penned an editorial published Sept. 1, 2016 in the Queens Tribune that stated, “Being decisive and taking action is important, but we need an inclusive, collaborative approach to truly help these workers.” In the editorial, Kim’s proposed solution to salon air quality is A.526, which would ban the use of the “toxic trio” of chemicals (which the bill identifies as “toluene, dibutyl phthalates, and formaldehyde”) in nail polish and hardeners. He states this will “more equitably address the real root of the issue.” However, as addressed in other NAILS magazine articles, the notion of any nail product ingredients being “toxic” at the levels used is controversial in and of itself. The IMC does not provide any relief based on products or processes used, and Aerovex’s Cardarella notes, “It’s a misconception to tie odor level to the hazard level of the chemical. Odor is not an indicator of the hazard….[Banning specific chemicals in nail salons] is not an answer by itself. It’s a misconception to think this approach eliminates the need for proper and appropriate ventilation.”

2015 IMC requires that the hood of the source-capture system be no more than 12 inches away from the chemical source; this hood on the Healthy Air unit distributed by Aerovex Systems, is within six inches.

2015 IMC requires that the hood of the source-capture system be no more than 12 inches away from the chemical source; this hood on the Healthy Air unit distributed by Aerovex Systems, is within six inches. 

Other areas of disagreement with the regulations include some manufacturers’ beliefs that the 2015 IMC does not go far enough to protect nail techs in some respects. Several manufacturers commented that the 12-inch maximum between the work area and the source-capture hood is too lenient, stating that the distance shouldn’t be more than 6 inches for adequate protection.

Valentino Beauty Pure’s DiLorenzo also says that the minimum 50 cfm requirement is not strong enough to eliminate nail dust and acrylic odor. “Valentino Beauty Pure does product development and research and we have found that the 293 cfm fan that our products use is what is needed to properly remove nail dust and acrylic odor,” he says.

Cardarella advocates for what he calls “three zone protection,” which adds a salon air purifier and enhanced HVAC to breathing zone source-capture ventilation. “It is our opinion that up to 50% of the contaminates can escape the capture and enter the general room air. Various events will contribute to this ‘fugitive’ contamination, including: cross flow generated by the usual movement of people within the salon, the effect produced by the opening and closing of doors, cross flow pattern developed through the HVAC system, etc,” he says. “In such case, there is no means provided [by the 2015 IMC] to clean this contaminated air that leaks into the salon, unless the additional control measures of proper salon room air purification and proper HVAC filtration recommended by the Nail Manufacturers Council on Safety…are utilized.”


Real-Life Scenarios

With all of the disagreements, what is a nail salon owner to do?

Many owners will take a watchful waiting approach; that is, wait and see if new ventilation regulations come to their towns or if enforcement ramps up for existing regulations. Experts caution there can be serious health risks with this approach; the debate over “toxicity” aside, the filings from acrylic and gel nails do enter nail salon air and, without adequate protection, they are certainly inhaled by working nail techs.

Some owners are taking a proactive approach and installing ventilation on their own initiative. Nikki Law, owner of Polished on Main in Harbor Springs, Mich., had been open for several months when she decided to do something about the dust and the acrylic odor in her 400-sq.-ft. space. She consulted with Aerovex and ultimately decided on a three-zone system (source capture for the manicure station, air purifier for the room, and enhanced HVAC filter for the building) that recirculates the filter-cleaned air back into the space. “In the 11 years I’ve been doing nails, this is the best money I’ve spent, hands down,” Law says.

To comply the 2015 IMC, New Jersey salon Nail Sketch installed source-capture systems at each station, including pedicure stations, that vent to the outside.

To comply the 2015 IMC, New Jersey salon Nail Sketch installed source-capture systems at each station, including pedicure stations, that vent to the outside.

Increasing numbers of salon owners are being required by local governments to install ventilation systems. New Jersey-based Jessica Lee, owner of Nail Sketch in Saddle Brook, was told by a building inspector in early 2016 to install exterior-exhausting source capture systems at every station in order to obtain a permit. She has no regrets. She says, “It wasn’t too hard. The landlord was fine with it, and the installation took half a day.” When asked if she ever thought about giving up on her salon because the codes were too burdensome, she replies: “Even before I found out I had to abide by the codes, I had wanted a similar ventilation for me. It’s true that I had no choice, but I am happy to have it. Now that I’m done with the installation, I’m sort of glad that it is mandatory now. It’s a really good system.”

The battle over specific nail salon ventilation requirements is likely to continue for years or even decades, but now that public awareness of air quality has crescendoed, salon owners must be prepared to make decisions about their and their workers’ health and safety.


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