A new study conducted by the University of Colorado-Boulder concluded that nail salon employees face health risks similar to those of working at an oil refinery or an auto garage, due to high levels of indoor airborne pollutants such as formaldehyde and benzene.

The study, which monitored volatile organic compound levels in six Colorado nail salons, is among the first to illustrate the serious health risks prevalent in the industry, where technicians commonly work long hours and report symptoms such as headaches, respiratory difficulties and skin irritation, according to a news release.

In 2017, four undergraduate students working with Lupita Montoya, lead author of the research and research associate in CU Boulder’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, monitored six Colorado salons over an 18-month period, according to the release. The salon owners agreed to participate on the condition of anonymity.

The researchers set up equipment to monitor known VOCs such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes, as well as formaldehyde. While formaldehyde levels were similar to those measured in other settings, the study turned up higher-than-expected concentrations of harmful benzene, which has been linked to leukemia, in all six salons, according to the news release.

“Using the models that the EPA and the CDC have, we did this cancer modeling for two compounds,” Montoya said. “Even for those two, we found that usually the limit is one in a million — that is the level the EPA considers safe. Anything above that — or even at that point — is significant.

“The numbers we came out with were at that level or higher,” Montoya added. “This exposure is a combination of the pollutant level times the amount of time people spend in there.”

- Advertisement -

Besides benzene and formaldehyde, two of the salons yielded an unexpected discovery — methyl methacrylate, or MMA, a liquid monomer that has been banned by the Colorado Board of Cosmetology. Although known to cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and respiratory tract, MMA is preferred by some nail technicians because application is easier than its alternative, ethyl methacrylate.

“That was an interesting outcome.” Montoya said. “Workers may be using things that are more detrimental to their health without knowing it. There is some education that needs to take place.”

Montoya and her colleagues also asked employees to fill out questionnaires about employment practices, safety practices and health symptoms. Technicians reported working an average of 52.5 hours per week — some ranging up to 80 hours per week — and 70 percent of workers reported experiencing at least one adverse symptom, with common responses including headaches, skin irritation and eye irritation, according to the study.

Workers in some salons faced lifetime cancer risks up to 100 times higher than baseline EPA-issued levels, the study found.

Based on the observed levels of air pollution, salon customers do not face the same health risks as employees, Montoya said.

“We only spend very little time there, so therefore the cancer risk is not significant,” she said. “But [for] the people who work there day in and day out, the cancer risk is much higher.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued 470 permissible exposure limits for various forms of about 300 chemicals. However, many of those figures, while widely used in industrial settings, are — by OSHA’s own admission — “outdated and inadequate for ensuring protection of worker health,” according to the agency’s website.

“Most of OSHA’s PELs were issued shortly after adoption of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act in 1970, and have not been updated since that time,” the website reads.

OSHA recommends internal corporate guidelines for companies whose employees frequently work in proximity to these chemicals, Montoya said. However, the demographics of the nail salon industry mean that often doesn’t happen.

“Even the agency in charge of protecting these workers recognizes that what they’re recommending is not good enough,” Montoya said. “They say people should issue their own guidelines, but you’re talking about an industry that is primarily poor, with a limited understanding of the regulations to start with and — in many cases — even language barriers.

“That is asking quite a bit out of them, so they’re not going to be able to comply.”

Marnel Mola, director of the Employers Council’s southern regional office in Colorado Springs, agreed that most small business owners do not intentionally violate regulations.

“I do think that smaller businesses in general tend to not necessarily even know the rules that are in place. They are just trying to meet objectives and not even thinking about it,” Mola said. “I don’t know that there is intention in what they’re doing. They are just trying to run a business.”

The Employers Council does not advise employers on environmental regulations, but does help them understand how to report injuries to OSHA, Mola said.


Montoya first became interested in the topic after visiting a nail salon and finding herself overpowered by the smell of open chemicals used in gel and acrylic nail applications. A mechanical engineer by trade, her first thought was the number of organic compounds that the salon’s inhabitants were likely being exposed to without knowing.

“I started thinking, ‘This is a very confined area and there are children nearby,’” Montoya said. “‘This is bad not only for the person working here, but for the people nearby.’ For certain people, like children and pregnant women, the effects are much larger.”

The study’s results came from Montoya’s third attempt to get field tests started, she said. Since 90 percent of nail salons nationwide are small businesses that employ a predominantly minority workforce and often lack the resources to adequately address worker health and safety, many owners declined to participate.

“In order to be able to work with these communities, you really do need to have the right researchers,” Montoya said. “You have to be respectful, thoughtful and knowledgeable, and you have to have a sensitivity that not everybody has.”

Although the preponderance of air pollution happens in poor communities, the topic is little researched for the same reasons Montoya ran into during her study, she said.

“Embedding members of that community in the research is very important, and this has a direct impact on why the science doesn’t get done,” she said. “When we are not there to do that science, our whole community suffers.”

Now that Montoya has some evidence under her belt, she hopes to work with officials at both the local and state levels to help promote healthier, safer practices for employees of the Colorado nail salon industry. As an example, she cited the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which aims to help shape policies and actions that will lead to healthier, safer working environments for salon employees.

“Ultimately I’m an engineer, so I wanted to work on solutions,” Montoya said. “We just want to bring awareness that we need to do better by these communities. Hopefully people will think it should be our duty to do something, especially for something that is so common.

“Salons are so ubiquitous. If we could do something for the workforce, that would be great.”