The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists products such as acetone, ethyl meth-acrylate, and toluene as ingredients that have the potential to cause adverse health effects due to overexposure. These ingredients, and many others on the list, can find their way into salons through products we use multiple times a day: nail polish, glue, gel, acrylic, and polish remover. Most techs take steps to ensure their health is not compromised, but the issue of safety becomes more pressing when a tech is pregnant.
Pregnancy changes a person’s perspective, and often a time of celebration is followed by evaluation. We evaluate what we eat and drink, if we’ll continue to smoke or be around people who do, and what we expose our bodies to, such as coloring our hair, tanning, and even medication. It’s natural that we would also take a look at the salon environment with fresh eyes. We may think, “If drinking wine and inhaling second-hand smoke could be bad for me and my baby, doesn’t it follow that inhaling chemical vapors for eight hours a day may pose a risk as well?”
It was these and other concerns that prompted the Division of Occupational Medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center, along with the Connecticut Pregnancy Exposure Information Service, to undertake a study to evaluate nail salons. In the interest of reducing stress in any pregnant readers, I’ll cut to the chase: the study’s summary finds the salon environment to be safe for pregnant women, including for techs who are exposed to the environment for a full work day. However, there are notable concerns for the pregnant tech, and some practical precautions should be taken.
“When we look at environmental exposure, we need to think in terms of precaution,” says Mark Roth, a teratogen information specialist with the Pregnancy Risk Network in Binghamton, N.Y. (A “teratogen” is an agent, such as drugs, medications, or other chemicals, that is able to disrupt or cause birth defects to an embryo or fetus.) It’s difficult to get specific data for salons, says Roth, because each one will have varying amounts of compounds in the air. Therefore, we need to stick with general guidelines in how to reduce risk.
Roth reminds us that we can come into contact with environmental agents in one of three ways: through the skin, through inhalation, or through ingestion. Techs can focus on these three areas of contact to reduce chemical exposure.
It’s important to prevent salon chemicals from coming into contact with our skin. Techs often take exceptional care in keeping product off their clients’ hands, but may become lax in minimizing contact with their own skin. Precautions can include simple steps such as washing hands before and after every service, to advanced safety precautions, such as wearing gloves whenever you apply or file product. When applying acrylic, remember that the product dries enough to file it in only a few minutes, but it could take up to 24 hours to fully cure. Because of this, the shavings, dust, and particles that are created can cause a reaction to the skin hours after it’s “dried.” Protect your skin by wearing clothes that cover your arms and lap fully so flying dust and particles don’t land and sit on bare skin.
Evaluate how you work to reduce coming into contact with product. For example, some techs place a disposable paper towel on top of a cotton cloth, replacing the paper towel between each customer. While this may be comfortable for the client, it keeps a liquid-soaked towel on the table all day that could come into contact with your skin. Instead, use only the disposable towel, throwing it away and cleaning the table after every client. Another precaution to take, suggested in a 21-page booklet released by the EPA titled Protecting the Health of Nail Salon Workers, is to transfer product to small, covered containers instead of working from larger containers, so that less vaporizes into the air when it’s open.
Finally, read your Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and ingredient lists. And, when possible, switch to products that are free of potentially hazardous ingredients. Some easy ones to avoid are dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and toluene, as so many manufacturers have removed these ingredients from their polishes. This isn’t possible with all salon products, but when it is, make the switch, and let the clients know you’re making choices that are better for your health — and for theirs.
Nobody thinks you’re going to snack on nail shavings. But you might unintentionally consume dust, particles, or liquid if you eat or drink at your desk. In some states, it’s illegal to eat or have uncovered food at the desk, but hunger can make you do crazy things. When a client leaves to wash her hands, techs might snack on chips, take a quick bite of a sandwich, or drink from an open cup. Product can easily be transferred from hands to food, causing you to unknowingly ingest product. Avoid any chance of this by scheduling breaks where you can get away from the desk to eat.
The easiest ways for techs to become overexposed to the chemicals in the salon is through inhalation. Masks can provide excellent protection from inhaling dust and particles, but they do nothing to protect from vapors. Even N95-rated masks protect only from dust, often providing a false sense of protection for the user.
To protect against inhaling vapors, you must move the vapors away from the desk and out of the salon. Doug Schoon, chief scientific advisor for CND, has a saying that should be the precautionary mantra of every tech: Circulation is not ventilation. That means, you don’t want fans moving the air around, you want vents capturing the vapors and redirecting them out of the salon. Vents should be as close to the work site as possible, even built into a table, and then vented to the outside.
Other ways to reduce the vapors in the air include keeping a tight lid on waste containers and emptying the containers a couple of times a day. Cover all product after the application step is complete and each night before you go home. Finally, allow fresh air into the salon whenever possible.
Techs should know and follow these practical precautions whether they are pregnant or not. However, it’s especially important during pregnancy for a couple of reasons. First, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a report that states “certain workplace chemicals have had reproductive effects in animals.” The list includes “developmental disorders, spontaneous abortion, low birth weight, and various other disorders.” Their study didn’t test chemical exposure on humans, but the results of the study are a sober reminder that what is in the air can find its way into our bodies.
“The chemicals used in a nail salon are not likely to cause a problem to your pregnancy at the low air levels that have been measured in most nail salons,” states the study provided by the University of Connecticut Health Center. “However, if you do feel ill or dizzy or ‘drunk’ while working in your salon, you should reduce your exposure to the chemicals you use — this is a warning sign that solvent levels in the air might be high.”
That brings us to a second reason techs should be especially cautious while pregnant: Many salon chemicals are allergens, that is, they can cause allergies to flare. When the level of allergens in the air is high, or when those allergens come into contact with the body, the body could have an allergic reaction. Along with the symptoms listed above, the allergens in the air could cause headaches or irritated skin; they may even cause a tech to experience a flare-up of asthma. A non-pregnant woman would be able to take medicine to combat and control these issues, while a pregnant woman may be restricted to which medications she can use.
No study has been released that suggests the chemical level in a salon atmosphere poses a threat to a pregnant woman or her baby, even if that woman is working in the salon for her full workday. But be proactive. Schedule breaks during the day and get outside for some fresh air. Listen to your body. If you notice you react differently to salon products now that you’re pregnant, discuss the changes with your doctor. Download the Fact Sheet for Doctors (see sidebar) and bring it with you to your next appointment. Together you can combine your professional knowledge and your doctor’s medical background to create a plan that gives you the confidence that you’re working in an environment that is safe for you and your baby.
More Information and Resources
> To read the results of the report from the Division of Occupational Medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center, go to http://www.mothertobaby.org/other-education-materials-and-links-s13109. You can find a fact sheet for the nail tech and one to give to
> To read Protecting the Health of Nail Salon Workers, go to http://www.epa.gov/oppt/salon.