There’s no faster way to change a woman’s lifestyle — and life — than by telling her she’s pregnant. Formerly frantic women find themselves sharing down, insisting on eight hours of sleep a night, moving toward fruits and vegetables instead of the frozen food section, soul scrutinizing every perceived or potential threat that crosses their path. If the volume of mail we receive from mothers-to-be is a fair gauge, there is growing concern among nail technicians that their health and livelihood may be at stake by working with salon chemicals.

First of all, calm down. Stress is not good for you or the baby. You don’t have to quit your job as a nail technician as soon as you find out you’re pregnant (you’re going to need that income to buy lots of dollies, diapers, and formula). Instead of panicking, arm yourself with facts, not minors, to make a level-headed decision about working in the salon during pregnancy. And if you’re not pregnant, a dose of this pre-maternal caution can only help you work more safely as well.

Healthy Mom And Baby

The most common questions pregnant nail technicians ask are: Can I safely continue working in the salon when I’m pregnant? Are the chemicals I use toxic to my unborn baby? Will breathing chemical fumes hurt my baby?

What pregnant nail technicians need to consider is their level of chemical exposure. Although some of the chemicals used in the salon have been linked with a higher incidence of miscarriage, congenital malformations, and other pregnancy complications, the studies have been done on either laboratory animals or on people with much higher exposure levels than nail technicians have. No conclusions can be drawn from this research about the relative safety of salon work.

For example, there have been studies done on laboratory animals that have linked some salon chemicals with birth defects or other abnormalities, but the levels that lab animals were exposed to were hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of times higher than what a nail technician is exposed to working in the salon. So again, the research doesn’t necessarily prove humans will react the same way animals do to those chemicals. In another study, methacrylates (a type of plastic used in acrylic nail products) were shown to cause fetal deformities in chickens and rats, but studios of women working in the plastics industry, where the exposure to methacrylates is much higher than in the salon, did not show an increase in miscarriages or birth defects.

Other studies have linked human illness to the kinds of chemicals used in nail products, but the exposure levels also are much higher than what nail technicians encounter under average salon conditions. For example, toluene (a solvent used in nail polish) is known to cause mental retardation and physical deformities similar to those found in victims of fetal alcohol syndrome. However, says Dr. Thomas Shepard, you’d have to sniff from eight to 32 ounces of toluene; a day to cause these effects. This is the equivalent of inhaling all the toluene from 20½ ounce bottles of nail polish per day,

“The dosage is one of the main problems we face. We know that about half the chemicals we test [cause fetal malformation] in animals, but we test them at about 1,000 times what a human is expensed to,” says Shepard, a professor of pediatrics and an adjunct professor of both obstetrics and environmental health at the University of Washington-Seattle Pediatric Hospital.

The study of chemical overexposure; is a relatively new field that is still developing, says Mark Sneller, Ph.D., of Aero-Allergen Research in Tucson, Ariz. In time, more studies will be done on adults and fetuses who are exposed to workplace chemicals. Until then, he advises nail technicians to follow common sense guidelines based on what is now known.

Should You Quit?

Whether you should continue working in the nail salon while you’re pregnant is a personal decision that should be made only after all the facts are in. “It's such an easy thing to say she should just quit,” says Dr. Karen Filkins, director of reproductive genetics at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa., “but so many women are self-supporting and need that money. There are ways to minimize; that exposure [to chemicals] so that it is of very little concern.

“We panic a great deal at things that are unknown, while there are many things that we know are hazardous that we tolerate,” she says. There are plenty of women who panic about working with salon chemicals while they think nothing of smoking or thinking during pregnancy, for example.

All the medical, chemical, and workplace hazard experts NAILS interviewed agree that a pregnant nail technician can continue working in the salon unless she is experiencing ether medical problems or she is unwilling to work safely. However, everyone emphasizes that, while there is no information showing that it’s unsafe to continue working with nail products, there’s nothing that says it’s completely safe, either. “We always weigh risks and benefits all throughout life,” says Filkins. “Pregnancy adds the complication of not just thinking about risks and benefits to yourself, but risks and benefits to someone else linked to you.”

Says Dr. Michael Mennuti, “Clearly, the most conservative position is to minimize all exposures during pregnancy. Talk it through with your obstetrician.” Mennuti is a professor and chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Where Are The Culprits?

The chemicals you should be most concerned with in the salon are volatile organic solvents (VOCs). While you certainly must be careful about exposure the all the chemicals, most of the products used by technicians contain VOCs, which easily evaporate into the air you breathe. “Anything in nail salons that will vaporize is a VOC. Organic means it contains carbon, which is just about everything except product beetles and the grit on files. Anything vaporizing is volatile,” says Doug Schoon, chemist and owner of Chemical Awareness Training Service in Newport Beach, Calif.

Most of the products used by nail technicians are applied wet and then dry on the nail — nail dehydrators, primers, acrylic monomers, wrap adhesives, activators, nail polish, and polish remover are several of the products you use that contain volatile organic solvents. Nail products have so much odor because they contain so many VOCs that evaporate into the air. But don’t confuse a product’s odor with its safety. There are products that produce no smell but do produce vapors that are more dangerous than those in foul-smelling products.

Inhalation is the primary route that vapors and dust take into your body. Product can also be absorbed through the skin or through your digestive system if you accidentally eat it. Obviously you don’t intentionally make a meal of your products, but it’s easy, for example, to get filing dust on your fingers and then pick up a potato chips and pop it into your mouth. Conceivably, some of the product will get on the chip and ride with it to your stomach, where it can enter your bloodstream. You may also be drinking your product if any residue gets in an uncovered coffee cup at your station.

When these chemicals and residual products gain access, they can enter your bloodstream and cross the placenta to your baby.

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has determined safe exposure levels for the chemicals you work with, these levels are set for adults, not fetuses, says Filkins. No studies have been done to determine what is a safe exposure level for an unborn child, but you can assume that safe levels are much lower than the permissible exposure levels set for adults.

Exposure to any chemicals, including those used in nail products, poses a risk to health, says Glen Browning, staff services analyst for the California State Board of Cosmetology. “Assuming that a nail tech knows this and wishes to continue working in the profession, he or she should exhaust all avenues to provide the healthiest work environment — like asking the owner to provide adequate ventilation, opening doors and windows, and using personal protective equipment.” These are the same precautions followed by house painters, laboratory workers, and any other people whose profession requires their constant exposure to chemicals.


Experts agree that the most important action a pregnant nail technician should take is to assure that her work environment is adequately ventilated. “We recommend they are in a well-ventilated environment so they get the least inhalation of VOCs. If they’re not in a well-ventilated area then that might be a good reason to move to a better environment,” says Mennuti.

Says Sneller, “The customer is only in the shop for an hour or two, whereas the professional is exposed for eight, 10, 12 hours a day. We’re just not meant to inhale things like toluene without an adequate supply of fresh air.”

The best way to keep your breathing zone (the one- to two-foot area around your mouth and nose) clean is to wear a dust mask and to use a local exhaust ventilation system that pulls air away from your work area and vents it to the outside. Local exhaust is the most effective means of guaranteeing clean air and is certainly tile wave of the future. But a local exhaust system can be expensive, and Filkins says there are other options.

“An exhaust system pulling fumes out is obviously the best solution, but at the very least an open window or door with a fan blowing fumes away from you is the least expensive change,” says Filkins. “You want to be in a large room with an open area because that allows better circulation.” However, without a local exhaust system, chemicals will remain in your breathing zone long enough for you to breathe them, reminds Schoon.

A larger work area increases the volume of available fresh air and allows chemicals to dilute much more quickly. Sneller recommends using air purifiers with carbon-activated filters in conjunction with a local exhaust system to help absorb VOCs. Schoon disagrees, saying carbon-activated filters are not very effective; in trapping vapors because the particles are so small. In addition, he says, acrylic products do not have a high attraction to carbon so it is not an effective trap.

Other precautions include wearing gloves that are impervious to the chemicals you use, capping bottles tightly when next in use, and using only small amounts of product in dappen dishes instead of working from large bottles. Wipe up spills immediately and use closed trash containers so that product doesn’t evaporate into the air, and empty containers several times a day. If you get product on your skin, stop immediately and wash it off.

While some of these precautions may seem laborious and time-consuming, they will make the work area safer and more pleasant. Soon, taking precautions will become second nature and you won’t even think about doing it.

Filkins sums it up, “It’s annoying to work with gloves on and it’s annoying to wear a coat and it’s annoying to work in a ventilated area, but those are minor annoyances compared with the; burden someone would live with if their child was to exhibit some signs of fetal alcohol syndrome, which is the effect some of these chemicals have been reported to have on the fetus.”


Prepare for your first obstetrician appointment by making copies of the MSDS for the products you use and preparing a list of questions. Browning recommends taking a list of the products you use, an estimate of your exposure to each, and what precautions you are taking to limit your exposure. Although your personal physician can discuss some issues of chemical safety in general, Mennuti warns that obstetricians don’t necessarily have the answers venue looking for. “I think that even for people who are very expert in the field of reproductive toxicology, it’s very difficult to give answers. What I commonly see is that the patient has some environmental exposure, gets a list of the chemicals, and is referred to her obstetrician who doesn’t have any resources except literature.”

Adds Browning, “Obstetricians are not occupational health experts and may not be aware of the potentially harmful effects of the chemicals nail techs use.” However, Schoon points out that most symptoms of overexposure are listed on the MSDS.

However, your obstetrician does know you and your body. While your obstetrician may not be; trained to deal with chemical overexposure, she is probably familiar with the signs of chemical overexposure and toxicity. Some of the symptoms of overexposure — headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and irritability — are also symptomatic of pregnancy, but if a patient is chronically sick, it could be; a sign that she’ is not exercising sufficient precautions, says Filkins.

There are many sources you can turn to for further information, but you are the only one who can decide; if you will continue working in the salon during your pregnancy. If you do, make sure you have an educated, responsible attitude and take the precautions to prevent chemicals from getting past you to your baby. It’s just the start of a lifetime commitment to protect your child from harm.


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