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Formaldehyde, a chemical commonly used as a nail hardener and preservative in nail products, is a known carcinogen. Long-term exposure to low levels of formaldehyde can also cause asthma. Skin contact can cause allergic dermatitis. Short-term exposure to formaldehyde can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and skin.14

Another potentially dangerous chemical in nail products is the solvent toluene which is found in nail polish and nail glues. It is a neurological toxicant and causes headaches, dizziness, nausea, and symptoms similar to drunkenness, color vision impairment, and neuropsychological (for example, difficulty in learning numbers and recognizing words) and neurobehavioral effects (for example, difficulty in concentrating and loss of short-term memory).15 Toluene is also a developmental toxicant.16 At a dose which produced no toxic effects in pregnant animals, toluene retarded the growth of fetuses exposed in utero, as well as the growth of the subsequent generation of animals born to the exposed fetuses.17 In an epidemiological study, the rate of spontaneous abortion was increased 2.8-fold in workers exposed to toluene compared to a non-exposed control group.18

Acetone is in polish and acrylic nail removers. Both toluene and acetone are solvents which dissolve the natural protective oils of the skin, and can lead to dry and cracked skin and dermatitis. Other adverse health effects of acetone include symptoms resembling drunkenness, and irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs.19 Long-term overexposure to high levels caused kidney and liver damage in animals.20

Ethyl cyanoacrylate (ECA) in artificial nail glues is linked to a range of adverse health effects including dermatitis and asthma.21, 22 In conversations


with nail technicians, they often attribute their skin rashes, headaches, and irritated eyes to the use of nail glues.23

Ethyl methacrylate (EMA) is a common chemical used to prepare artificial nails. It is touted by the nail industry as a safer substitute for methyl methacrylate (MMA), which has been banned by California’s and other states’ Boards of Barbering and Cosmetology; however, due to its chemical structure, it is probably not any safer.24

The chemicals discussed here are a few of the bad actors in nail salon products; however, there are many others that are harmful to the health of the nail salon community. For a summary of the adverse health effects of the substances discussed here, see Table 1. For information on others, see Roelofs et al., 2007.25

California Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology have regulatory authority over nail salons.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) within the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) enforces workplace health and safety laws including chemical exposure limits, and provides workers with health and safety information. The Cal/OSHA Standards Board adopts regulations to ensure health and safety on the job. Cal/OSHA does not generally initiate inspections of nail salons and other workplaces; rather, inspections are generally conducted only in response to a health and safety complaint.


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