You shouldn’t have to suffer to be beautiful. But many women suffer for the beauty of others, polishing nails and styling hair with a toxic palette of chemicals.
Working long hours amid noxious fumes, salon workers, typically women of color, are in constant contact with chemicals linked to various illnesses and reproductive health problems.
While environmental justice campaigns have historically focused on localized pollution issues, the National Healthy Nail & Beauty Salon Alliance organizes around the intersection of workplace environmental health and racial and economic justice. According to the Alliance’s analysis, the hazards endemic to the nail salon industry are stratified by ethnicity and gender: roughly four in ten workers are Asian immigrants, many of them of childbearing age, poor, uninsured and with limited English-speaking ability. And they are assaulted daily by invisible threats:
On a daily basis and often for long hours at a stretch, nail and beauty salon technicians – most of whom are women of reproductive age – handle solvents, glues, polishes, dyes, straightening solutions and other nail and beauty care products, containing a multitude of unregulated chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer, allergies, respiratory illnesses, neurological and reproductive harm.
These toxic environments reflect the marginal nature of neighborhood beauty shops that operate with little oversight. The Alliance reports that workers are often crammed into “poorly ventilated, small workspaces,” lacking protective gear, sometimes using inaccurately labeled products, not knowing to protect themselves.
Environmental justice activists in Harlem, New York, are investigating the health implications of beauty products marketed to women of color with a “Beauty Map” project. The data visualization pinpoints where and how these ethnic beauty products are sold in the community. According to WE ACT’s research:
The presence of ethnic personal care products sold in pharmacies, discount chains, and corner stores in Northern Manhattan, revealed more than 600 non beauty related points of source in addition to the 348 beauty salons, supply stores, and hair braiding shops in the area….
Given the prevalence of ethnic personal care products sold in Northern Manhattan stores and use among residents, WE ACT is advocating for chemical policy that will better protect consumers against potentially harmful ingredients in personal products.
One particularly popular and controversial hair treatment is Brazilian Blowout, which produces formaldehyde gas linked to cancer and associated with respiratory ailments. Earlier this year, in a Nation Institute report, California-based stylist Jennifer Arce talked about becoming sick from Brazilian Blowout, recalling that among her coworkers, “We were all getting rashes, headaches, and bloody noses.” Pointing to a workplace culture of fear, she said, “I’m now hearing from hair stylists who have had their jobs threatened and are being bullied by co-workers and management if they complain about exposure to Brazilian Blowout.”
In New York City, the ACLU and labor activists have campaigned to protect, and raise public awareness about, low-income immigrant nail salon workers facing abuse from their employers and the workplace toxins.
Despite these hazards, women workers can find power at the interface between a poisonous industry and consumers who lust for beauty. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative has brought together salon workers, owners and public health advocates to provide health and safety training for salons and to push for tighter regulations on the industry.
The Collaborative, which includes Asian Health Services and other community organizations, has worked with San Francisco salons to raise workplace standards cooperatively. In collaboration with city and county environmental authorities, the Collaborative has partnered with Asian Law Caucus and Environment California to set up a recognition program for salons that keep their shops free of the “toxic trio” of nail polish chemicals (toluene, dibutyl phthalate and formaldehyde). Additionally, the group is pushing to expand the bilingual services provided by safety regulators and the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.
The Collaborative’s policy director Catherine Porter told In these Times that while stronger regulations are needed, a rewards system for salons that use less toxic products and greener practices could motivate local owners to promote healthier workplaces:
We see recognition programs as a way that nail salons can set themselves apart from their competition. Nail salons will say to themselves, “Oh, if I use safer products and safer practices, that’s actually something that I can market, and I can use that to attract more customers and a more loyal customer base.” Plus, we think that as more salons move in the direction of using less toxic products, that will in turn pressure nail product manufacturers to develop safer alternatives.
The state of California recently gave advocates a boost with a legal settlement that will stop deceptive labeling practices by the manufacturer of Brazilian Blowout. The Collaborative and the National Healthy Nail & Beauty Salon Alliance has called for stronger federal labor protections and stricter labeling and reporting standards. The proposed federal Safe Cosmetics Act would not only ramp up federal oversight of personal care products but also move the industry toward phasing out the most dangerous chemicals.
But despite these community-driven efforts, the supply chain remains dominated by companies that profit by degrading environmental health, and by a consumer culture that endorses the trading of health for beauty. As workers absorb the poisonous cost of “perfection,” the ugly mirror image of the beauty business is slowly coming to light.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.