Editor’s note: What constitutes proper ventilation for a nail salon is one of nail technicians’biggest concerns, yet one of the least understood. Technicians want to know the long-term effects of inhaling fumes and filling dust . this two-part series will separate fact from fiction in the ventilation. Issue and provide practical advice for working safety in the salon.

Use Only With Adequate Ventilation!” This familiar warning is found on products ranging from oven cleaner to nail polish. Few labels, retail or professional, escape this ominous statement. But what is adequate ventilation? How do you know if your salon is properly ventilated? And what are the consequences of ignoring these warnings?

A growing number of nail technicians are concerned about making their salons safer places to work. Chemical awareness is no longer just a catchy phrase---it has become one of the important issues facing today’s nail professionals.

Ventilation is often seen solely as a way to reduce offensive odors. Many technicians believe that odors themselves are dangerous. This assumption is probably the most common, and potentially the most dangerous, misconception in the nail industry. This myth implies that one can tell how safe a chemical is simply by its smell.

Odors Don’t Necessarily Mean Danger

Odors are everywhere in the salon. The polishes, primers, acrylic liquids, and wrap accelerators---all these products have odors, and some smell rather strong. It is widely accepted that products with sweet, pleasant aromas contain good, wholesome ingredients. We like nice smells and are suspicious of strange or bad odors. We assume that foul smelling chemicals must be dangerous. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Odor is produced by vapors stimulating the nerves in our nose. The quality of the odor is unrelated to what the chemical vapour can do to your body. Carbon monoxide, for example, is an odourless gas that can cause illness, and even death. However, this doesn’t mean that odors are completely unimportant, or completely unrelated to danger. They are one of the tools that help us determine if the salon environment is safe.

Proper ventilation helps protect the salon environment. Because you spend much of your time at work, the quality of salon air is as important to you as the air quality where you live.

Use the checklist to assess the air in your salon.

The last two questions may appear unrelated to this topic, but they are the two strongest warning signs that salon may not have good ventilation.

Some nail technicians consider themselves lucky because they don’t notice the strong product odors.  They don’t realize they are suffering from olfactory fatigue, which means the nose has tired of the offensive smells. Eventually, your nose can suffer permanent damage, drastically reducing your ability to smell. Your sense of taste may then be affected as well---just think how tasteless food is when you have a cold.

If you answered yes to any of the checklist questions, you may have a ventilation problem. Odors are important tools, not your enemy. But if odors aren’t the problem, what is the purpose of proper ventilation?

The purpose is to keep the salon environment as clean and healthy as possible by reducing the amount of contaminants in the air.

The Varieties of Air Contaminants

Salon air contaminants come in three varieties: vapors, mists, and dust. Each contaminant can present a health risk if not controlled. Vapors are formed when liquids evaporate. Since all liquids evaporate eventually and escape into the air, vapors can be a major source of contamination.

Mists are fine droplets created by aerosol or spray pump containers.

Dust is solid particles that range in size from the size of a pinhead to specks that can be seen only through a microscope.

Each type of air contaminant poses its own set of concerns to the nail technician. Fortunately, these concerns are easily addressed. It is possible to breathe easily in the salon and protect your health. But first you need to understand why proper ventilation is so important.

No one is certain about the specific risks created by improper ventilation. Scientists have performed many studies in other fields, collecting evidence showing that some chemicals are hazardous. The nail industry, however, is just emerging from its infancy; not enough time has passed to gather meaningful information on salon workers. Most of our knowledge comes from manufacturing plant workers who have been exposed to higher doses of chemicals for longer periods of time.

Some conclusions have been drawn about chemicals that are components of nail products and used in other industries. Specific health hazards have been associated with these chemicals. To the uninitiated this information may spell fear, but science and common sense tell us that the risk of working in the salon environment is only from overexposure.

The “Overexposure Principle” says that even the most dangerous chemical substance cannot harm you unless you overexpose yourself to that substance. Therefore, we must learn to avoid overexposure.

Luckily, simple contact with a potentially hazardous substance, such as those commonly used in the professional nail care industry, won’t harm you.

This concept may become clear after examining the dangerous properties of another deadly chemical known as water.

Water is a chemical. Everything you can see or touch (except light and electricity) is a chemical. And, water is potentially deadly. Holding your head in a swimming pool for five minutes will verify this. Of course, no one would ever do such a foolish thing. Why?

Since we were children, our parents taught us proper behaviour around this potentially deadly chemical. For instance, every school child knows not to swim after a big meal or that it is dangerous to use a blow-dryer in the bathtub. Improper use and overexposure to water can cause serious health problems. Should we ban water or avoid it at all cost? That would be silly, but the example shows us the importance of the Overexposure Principle.

Just because studies show that a chemical can cause a health problem doesn’t mean it will. The people in these studies were accidentally overexposed for time periods long enough to show the harmful effects.

To work safely with nail products, you need to lower your exposure to safe levels. This is easier to do than you might have suspected.


Protecting the salon environment is merely a new way of stating the old idea of working safely. While you are performing your services, the whole world shrinks to a much smaller perspective. Your world is contained within those four walls. We can reduce this area further by concentrating on the space between you and your client. This small corner of the universe is called your breathing zone. Your breathing zone moves with you, but while you work it is stationary. Few things can have a greater impact on your health than what occurs in this small zone.

Imagine the impact of long-term environmental damage on your breathing zone! There can be no better reason to protect this precious space. This is the true definition and purpose of adequate ventilation

Next month, Part II will discuss the steps you can take to protect your salon’s environment. Many of these ideas are very simple and inexpensive; all are highly effective. You will learn to control vapors, mists, and dust and thereby reduce your exposure to dangerous chemicals. Working safely is really very easy once you know how. Common sense is helpful for some cases, but nothing can replace true product knowledge and understanding.

Douglas Schoon, M.S., is executive director of Chemical Awareness Training Systems, a company specializing in chemical education. Schoon holds a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of California at Irvine.


Air Quality Checklist

1 Do strong product odors linger for more than 10 minutes after use?

2 If someone uses a strong-smelling product, can people on the other side of the salon detect the odor?

3 Can you smell product odors when you open the shop in the morning?

4 Do the walls ever ‘sweat’ with moisture or do the windows fog?

5 Do any employees frequently complain of one or more of the following symptoms headaches, dry or sore throats, blurry vision, watery eyes, insomnia, irritability, nausea, dizziness, coughs, runny or bloody noses, sneezing, tingling toes or fingers, drowsiness, chest aches or pains, shortness of breath, loss of coordination or appetite?

6 Do your clients ever complain about offensive odors?

7 Do you ever open the window or door because the odors become too strong?

8 Do strong odors no longer bother you or have you become unaware of them?

9 Do you get funny tastes in your mouth or does food lack flavour?

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