You won’t believe what your manicure REALLY costs

Pretty nails can really add a refined, finishing touch to any look, but that fashionable flair comes at a high cost for the manicurists.

A recent exposé by the New York Times, Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers,” has brought to light the true cost of a manicure, and the findings in their investigation are disturbing at best. Underpaid and often immigrant workers are exposed every day to a vast array of toxic chemicals that cosmetics companies have claimed is safe for years.

In scientific circles, however, there are, “three chemicals in nail products that are associated with the most serious health issues are dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde. They are known as the “toxic trio” among worker advocates.” Research has shown these three chemicals are anything but safe. Dibutyl phthalate must be labeled with the phrases “may cause harm to the unborn child” and “possible risk of impaired fertility” in Australia. The E.P.A. has stated that toluene can impair cognitive and kidney function as well as “adversely affect the developing fetus.” Formaldehyde has been labeled as a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services in 2011.

One woman who did not want to give her name for the article said that her doctor urged her to change jobs. “The chemicals are not healthy for your lungs, your liver, and sometimes they begin cancer,” she recalled. “I was laughing. I said, ‘Who is going to pay my bills?’”

She has miscarried three times.

Another manicurist, Le Thi Lam, developed a thyroid condition and asthma. In 1991, she quit because she was too sick to work and was concerned about the chemicals she was working with, but her limited English forced her back to the manicurist’s chair. Ten years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.


Still, somehow, the cosmetics industry continues to insist these chemicals are safe for workers to be exposed to every single day they work.

In the New York Times article, Lisa Powers, a spokeswoman for the Personal Care Products Council, the main trade association and lobbying group for the cosmetics industry, said the “toxic trio,” “have been found to be safe under current conditions of use in the United States. The safe and historical use of these ingredients is not questioned by F.D.A.”

Despite clams to safety, some polish companies have voluntarily begun to remove certain chemicals from formulations, labeling the new formulations as “3-free” or “5-free,” referring to the number of chemicals that the companies claimed was no longer in them.

The New York Times article revealed, “A 2010 study by the F.D.A. and another in 2012 by the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substance Control found in random tests that some products, even ones labeled “3-free” or “5-free,” in fact contained those very chemicals.”

While the Personal Care Products Council hinges their arguments on technicalities and regulatory loopholes, the manicurists exposed to these harsh chemicals are the ones who suffer.


The health risks aren’t the only dangerous part of a manicurist’s job. A second article by the New York Times entitled “The Price of Nice Nails” reveals that the nail industry in New York City reveals rampant incidences of wage theft, exploitation, ethnic bias, and other abuses.

As stated in the article, “Lawsuits filed in New York courts allege a long list of abuses: the salon in East Northport, N.Y., where workers said they were paid just $1.50 an hour during a 66-hour workweek; the Harlem salon that manicurists said charged them for drinking the water, yet on slow days paid them nothing at all; the minichain of Long Island salons whose workers said they were not only underpaid but also kicked as they sat on pedicure stools, and verbally abused.”

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In the immediate aftermath of the articles publication, even the author of these two articles isn’t sure what people should do to ensure their manicurist is getting paid a fair wage.

Fortunately, New York’s leaders have made significant strides towards trying to improve the working conditions and right for the city’s manicurists. Yahoo! News recently reported that New York governor Andrew Cuomo introduced legislation which is designed to protect nail salon workers from exploitative managers and operators. The legislation also introduces a public education campaign to help workers understand their rights.

“Our point is simple: exploitation has no place in the state of New York,” said Cuomo. “The rights of nail salon employees must be respected and we are launching an aggressive crackdown on the industry to make sure that happens.”

Changes in New York, however, does not mean changes are happening in your hometown.

Next time you’re thinking about treating yourself to a cheap mani-pedi, think twice about the industry your dollars are supporting.

Do you really need that manicure?

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