Environmental Studies Program

Assessing Occupational Exposure in Nail Salons

Introduction and Background

Nail salons in the United States have grown dramatically in number and popularity in recent years. In 2006, it was estimated that there were more than 58,000 beauty salons in the U.S., with more than 350,000 licensed nail technicians, 60 percent of whom are Vietnamese.

Personal-care products handled regularly by nail salon employees contain a wide array of chemicals that are known or suspected to be associated with skin and eye irritation, allergies, neurologic or reproductive effects. To more fully understand workers' exposure to these chemicals, students in the Justice Brandeis Semester Environmental Health and Justice program, under the direction of environmental studies professor Laura Goldin, undertook a study of nail salons in Boston in fall 2012.


We conducted a study of occupational exposure to chemicals at 15 nail salons in the Boston area from September to December 2013. We tested for exposure to acetone, formaldehyde, toluene and ethyl methacrylate and calculated the efficiency of the ventilation systems by measuring carbon-dioxide levels as well as relative humidity and temperature. We also collected information relative to salon capacity, number of workers in the salon, the geographic location of the salon, whether the salon was in an enclosed building structure, the number and location of workstations, the number of acrylic and lacquer nail services performed during the sampling day and other parameters. In addition to our full shift testing, we video recorded one acrylic manicure and two lacquer manicures while simultaneously recording changes in total volatile organic levels.

Major Findings

  • Some salons had levels of CO2 that indicated they did not meet the ASHRAE ventilation standard for CO2 of 800ppm.
  • High levels of formaldehyde were present in the air of some salons.
  • High acetone concentrations were found in the personal breathing zones of workers in some salons.
  • A strong correlation existed between low acetone concentrations and mechanical ventilation.
  • Ethyl methacrylate concentrations in one salon exceeded Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for the chemical, an acrylic monomer.

Major Recommendations

  • Install proper mechanical ventilation, if not already installed.
  • Opt for safer products, where possible, rather than enforcing personal protective equipment for workers.
  • Research nail products to provide accurate knowledge of their contents to users and regulators.
  • Educate nail salon workers, clients and owners on safer practices.
  • Research short-term worker exposure to specific chemicals (with task-based monitoring).