Framing a Research Agenda for Change

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The beauty service industry has undergone dramatic growth over the last two decades, and the cosmetology industry has become one of the fastest growing professions in California, largely influenced by the emergence of the manicurist specialty.  Currently, there are nearly 37,000 nail establishments, nearly triple the number in the 1980’s, and approximately 400,000 technicians who are licensed to perform hair and nail care services in California alone.  The vast majority of nail salon workers are women of color, with Vietnamese immigrants representing a large proportion of the workforce (estimated 60-80%) in the state.

The health and safety of workers in this industry have increasingly attracted public attention due to the concerns associated with ingredients found in personal care products. Nail care products contain, in varying amounts, many toxic and potentially hazardous ingredients, and are largely unregulated in the U.S.  In fact, of the 10,500 chemicals used in personal care products, including nail care products, nearly 90% have not been assessed for safety.  While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the regulation of cosmetics, it lacks the legal authority to require manufacturers to conduct pre-market testing of their products to ensure safety of salon workers and consumers.   Worker exposures to toxic chemicals in salons are exacerbated by poorly-labeled products, limited safety information, small workplaces, and inadequate ventilation.    The combination of hazardous chemicals, inadequate ventilation, lagging regulatory standards and enforcement, and a large immigrant workforce with cultural and language barriers underscore the need for research to understand the health impacts associated with working in this industry.

In response to growing health concerns and the dearth of existing research, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative (Collaborative), in partnership with Women’s Voices of the Earth (WVE), the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), and the National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance (Alliance), organized a multi-stakeholder convening in April 2009 to discuss the state of the science on occupational chemical exposures of cosmetology workers and resulting health effects, with the intention to inform and build upon current efforts in California and nationally to develop a proactive research and advocacy agenda for the salon sector.  Held in Oakland, California, the convening attracted over 120 researchers, scientists, environmental, public health and labor advocates, nail salon workers and owners, cosmetologists, industry members, regulatory representatives, and public health experts.

The following report provides an overview of the convening’s discussions, proceedings, key outcomes, and the recommendations that were collectively developed by the convening’s participants over the course of the two-day meeting.  Key recommendations formulated during the convening are listed below:

  • Establish a national research advisory committee to provide technical guidance on future research efforts to advance a proactive research agenda.
  • Explore ways to advance green chemistry efforts, including understanding barriers (e.g., information data gaps, safety and accountability gaps, and technology gaps); advocating for product reformulation; and incentivizing product manufacturers and beauty salons to adopt “greener” products,
  • Develop a health surveillance program for tracking health problems in the cosmetology workforce, including hair and nail care professionals.
  • Advocate for more affordable and accessible health care for salon workers who often lack health benefits.
  • Promote research that investigates the cumulative and synergetic impacts of occupational exposure to multiple chemical compounds through multiple routes of exposure in salons over long periods of time.
  • Advocate for more accessible information to workers by: 1) ensuring that material safety and data sheets (MSDS) of salon products are made more easily readable and accessible and are translated into multiple languages, and 2) ensuring more (detailed) labeling of salon products so workers will know what compounds they contain and the corresponding safety precautions to take.
  • Develop and implement culturally and linguistically appropriate health and outreach interventions that focus on worker exposure reduction, including: personal protective equipment (i.e., proper masks and gloves); improved ventilation; use of safer product alternatives with least-toxic compounds; and safer handling of products.
  • Promote more comprehensive education outreach programs that include labor and worker rights issues in education and outreach efforts, such as reviewing the (mis)classification of nail salon workers as independent contractors, which results in workers not being eligible for health benefits.
  • Push for changes and greater transparency in how salon inspections are conducted by regulatory agencies, with regards to regulations, fines, process, worker/owner responsibilities, and dispute resolution.

The report also provides select resources and a compilation of research on occupational exposures in salons.

The California Health Nail Salon Collaborative and the National Alliance for Healthy Nail Salons are committed to strategically advancing the health, safety and workers’ rights of the beauty salon sector. Towards those ends, we invite diverse partnership and collaboration from organizations and agencies in California and nationally.

Download the full report