Toluene has gained much attention in recent years due to California’s Proposition 65, a law that requires products with any chemicals that are listed in the law as carcinogens (cancer-causing) or teratogens (causing birth defects) to bear a written warning. While the law is valid only in California, its influence is national because of the media coverage it has received. Toluene got nothing but bad press, leaving nail technicians wondering what the truth about toluene is.

Toluene is an organic solvent that is used in nail polish to keep it fluid until it is on the nail. You can thank toluene for your polish’s smooth application, durable finish, and brilliant color and shine. Toluene controls the flow of polish and the evaporation rate of other solvents in the formulation, which helps prevent “orange peel” (tiny surface imperfections that lower shine and affect color).

Scientific studies have shown that workers can safely work around toluene if it is below certain exposure levels. Federal agencies have used these scientific studies to establish a “Permissible Exposure Level” (PEL) to toluene in the workplace. According to federal agencies such as OSHA, as long as a worker’s exposure is below the PEL, the average person can safely work around toluene without experiencing long-term health problems as a result.

OSHA, however, is a federal agency that protects workers. Proposition 65 is a state law designed to protect consumers, and it uses different standards to determine safe exposure levels. Safe exposure levels to chemicals under Proposition 65 are based on what’s called the “No Observable Effects Level” (NOEL), which is higher than the PEL. Studies have shown that even sensitive people won’t experience short- or long term effects from exposure to toluene at levels below the NOEL. And Proposition 65 requires that consumers be warned if their exposure to a listed chemical is more than 1,000 times less than the NOEL.

When numerous polish manufacturers were sued by a consumer advocacy group in California for not posting warnings on nail polish, the Nail Manufacturers Council (NMC) sponsored a study to determine exactly what nail technicians’ and customers’ exposure level to toluene from nail polish was. The study found that the average nail technician’s exposure was approximately 1/1,000th of the NOEL. The California State Attorney General’s office reviewed the studies and declared that warnings about toluene in nail polish are not required for consumers, but that warnings are required for nail technicians until further studies can be conducted (currently underway under the NMC’s direction).

I believe the NMC’s study indicates that nail technicians can be confident that their exposure to toluene from nail polish is well below OSHA’s PEL and the NOEL. I suggest that nail technicians, rather than working in fear, should work cautiously and sensibly: Cap all products tightly after each use and make sure your salon has adequate ventilation.

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