Nail salon work may be easy way to make money, but it raises health issues

Photo by: Rie Kitayama

By Rie Kitayama


The Growth of the Nail Industry in the United States

When you go visit a nail salon, you may only be thinking about what color of nail polish you would like to wear. Many women imagine nail salons are the place to enjoy luxury time, escaping from ordinary stressful days. But for those who work there, health concerns are also a part of their thinking.

The nail industry has been growing in the United States for the last several decades. The industry grew to a record $8.54 billion in 2014 and the average service price has increased from $10.97 to $19.15  over the 10 years.

Credit: Rie Kitayama

The Nail Magazine conducted the survey in 2012 and found there are 357,265 nail technicians and 53,025 nail salons across the United States. California has the most nail technicians, with 84,6999. That same survey showed 13,077 nail technicians are working and 1,377 nail salons are operating in Massachusetts.  More than 200 nail salons dot the city of Boston.

According to Duyen Tran, interim outreach and program director at California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, most nail salon workers are immigrants, and more than 90 percent of them are women of reproductive age.

Source: 2014-2015 Industry statistics – The Nail Magazine Credit: Rie Kitayama
Source: 2014-2015 Industry statistics – The Nail Magazine Credit: Rir Kitayama

In 2011, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative conducted the research “Toxic Beauty No More!” In the research, they found that some of the cosmetic products used in nail salons have toxic chemicals that may cause health issues for both workers and customers.

“Nail salon workers have long exposures to toxic chemicals and products because they work from eight hours a day to 10 hours a day and some folks work seven days a week,” Tran said.

While Massachusetts has fewer nail salons than California,  many immigrant nail technicians are working in this beauty industry here.

Cora Roelofs, assistant professor of Public Health and Community at Tufts University, conducted a health survey of Vietnamese-American nail salon workers and published her research in 2007. Seventy-one nail technicians working in the Boston area were involved with the survey examining work-related health effects and environmental factors in Boston’s Vietnamese immigrant community.

Many of the nail technicians and workers in the Boston area who responded to the survey reported they have problems with musculoskeletal disorders, skin problems, respiratory irritation and headaches. The cause of those symptoms is considered work-related: poor air quality, dusts and offensive odors.

Nail products such as nail polish, removers, glue and other products used in salons contain small amounts of many toxic substances that are considered potentially hazardous ingredients including chemicals such as solvents, plasticizers, resins, and acids. These nail products may affect workers through exposure and may be potentially harmful.

The city started offering programs for salon workers to protect workers’ health and improve their workplace environment after another study conducted by Boston Public Health Commission in 2012 found that Boston nail salons have problems with the air quality and other conditions, including equipment sterilization.

Easy Way to Make Some Money? 

“Different people have different choices, but I thought it’s an easy way to make some money,” said Thang Tran, a sophomore at Suffolk University. He goes to Jupiter Beauty Academy to get the nail tech license. Tran takes the nail tech program in the evening after he finishes classes at college during the day. “It’s a common thing to do for newcomer people,” Tran said.

Sodarina Cabral, an Attleboro resident, also is taking the nail tech program at Jupiter Beauty Academy. She drives about 40 minutes every day to come to the school’s Dorchester location. “I chose to become a nail technician to make some money. As soon as I get the license, I can go work,” Cabral said. “One day, I may be able to run my own salon. You’ll never know.”

In Massachusetts, the state requires 100 hours of the nail technician program to be completed to obtain a nail tech license. Market Research conducted by Nail Magazine in 2014 found that more than half of nail salon workers across the United States are Vietnamese descent.

Source: 2014-2015 Industry statistics – The Nail Magazine Credit: Rie Kitayama

Cindy Nguyen is the owner of Chez Bella Salon in Allston and has been working in the nail industry more than 30 years. Nguyen said many immigrants choose to become a nail technician because it will not take much time to get certification.

“They only need to go to a nail school for about three months to get the nail tech license,” Nguyen said. For those who come to the U.S. as immigrants to find a job, she said she believes getting the skills for a nail tech license may be easier than going to school and spending a lot of time and money to get a degree.

Nguyen, however, pointed out that many nail technicians face problems because of the language barrier. “After they get the license, they can start working soon even if they don’t speak the language,” Nguyen said. Those nail technicians may know how to trim nails and offer service for their customers, but they may not really understand work-related regulations and the policies.

The nail tech kit used in Jupiter Beauty Academy. Photo by: Rie Kitayama
The nail tech kit used in Jupiter Beauty Academy. Photo by: Rie Kitayama

David Tri Vo, the president of Jupiter Beauty Academy founded the school in 2006, after he was running his own nail salons in Massachusetts. He said the biggest reason for establishing the beauty school was to help provide more opportunities to newly arriving immigrants.

Vo said many immigrants do not have so many options to choose from for making a living. Even if those immigrant salon workers feel uncomfortable using cosmetic products that contain strong odors or chemicals, they cannot complain.

“I can’t deny that I’ve never had work-related health issues when I worked as a nail salon worker,” Vo said. “The smell of the products may make you feel uncomfortable, but you’ll get used to it. For me, this was the only way to make money.”

Vo’s family first came to the United States as refugees of the Vietnam War. After he helped his family’s nail salon business in California, Vo and his wife came to Massachusetts to explore the possibilities of starting the nail business here.

While running his Boston area nail salons, Vo realized those hired as nail technicians were not aware of  business rules and regulations. He said he needed to train his employees about how to keep the workplace environment clean and how to protect themselves from work-related health issues even though they were officially certified nail technicians. That made Vo decide to start the beauty school to educate future nail technicians.

Mike Loc Vo, the assistant director of Jupiter Beauty Academy, used to work as a nail technician. He now teaches the nail tech program.  “We educate our students the proper usage of the products so that they don’t damage themselves and customers,” Vo said. “You’ll never know the long-term effects of the chemicals used in the products. Wearing protective gear, having proper ventilation systems, cleaning up the trash cans often to remove fumes are the things you have to care for your salon and your workers and customers.”

Thang Tran is practicing to trim nails. Photo by: Rie Kitayama

Jupiter Beauty Academy offers bilingual classes both in English and Vietnamese, teaching not only nail tech skills, but also the importance of communication skills with customers, how to dress well to give good impression for their customers, as well as the cosmetology. Classes focus on hazardous chemicals so that nail technicians would be aware of what they could do to protect themselves from having work-related health issues.

David Tri Vo is currently involved with many organizations, including the Boston Public Health Commission, working to improve the workplace at Boston nail salons and create a better environment both for customer and workers.

In addition to the nail tech program, the school is planning to open an advanced course for nail salon workers and owners who want to learn more about how to make or keep their workplace environmentally friendly and protect themselves from toxic chemicals.

Four things that may help prevent nail salon workers from having work-related health issues

  • Wear protective gear properly… this helps prevent you from being exposed to toxic chemicals
  • Don’t skip lunch …the lunchtime is the busy time at nail salons, and many salon workers tend to skip lunch. However, Vo points out that that is one of the reasons that cause health issues.
  • Stretch yourself…nail technicians tend to have injuries as they work in a same position for a long time. Stretching as much as possible helps prevent work-related health issues.
  • Go get some fresh air constantly…when your nail salon is not busy, go outside to get some fresh air.

David Tri Vo gives some beauty academy students a lecture on how to stretch to prevent injuries at work.

About Rie Kitayama 3 Articles
Rie Kitayama is a second year journalism graduate student at Emerson College. After completing her Master’s degree, she hopes to pursue a career as a reporter, focusing on the international relations between the United States and Japan.