Is your nail and hair salon your healthy sanctuary for self-care? Think again, especially if you are planning a pregnancy. Did you know that your salon or spa may use dozens of toxic chemicals? More harmful chemicals than you might find in a hardware store or toxic waste dump site. The risk is much higher for those in the beauty industry, especially for hair stylists or nail techs. The occupational hazard of being exposed to the poisonous cocktail of nail polish, nail polish removers, hair dyes, straighteners, and other hair products puts the beauty industry’s frontline workers’ health in harm’s way.
How Many Pregnancies Are At Risk?
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are currently around 400,000 active nail technician licenses and roughly 600,000 employed hairdressers in the United States. Most of these workers are women of reproductive age, and many are foreign-born or people of color.
Pregnant women’s exposures to synthetic chemicals are doubly toxic because many chemicals can be transferred from mother to child across the placenta and via breast milk. Fetal exposure to synthetic chemicals may disrupt development even at very low levels. The timing of this toxic exposure can cause birth defects, chronic health conditions such as asthma and allergy, and even changes at the (genetic) DNA level, passed on to future generations.
How Toxic Are Nail and Hair Salons?
Today’s nail salons are a chemistry geek’s dream come true with acrylates in artificial nail products, glues, parabens, toluene, formaldehyde, and phthalates. Cancer-causing chemicals such as volatile organic toluene, persulfates, and formaldehyde fill the ingredient lists of hair dyes and hair care products. The beauty industry continuously concocts new chemical combinations for the latest beauty trend or treatment. Yet, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labels beauty products as consumer products, just like they label menstrual cups or incontinence products. The FDA does not apply the same health and safety testing requirements for consumer products as they do for medications or drugs.
We already know that some chemicals on this scary-sounding laundry list of compounds are associated with cancer or reproductive harm. Studies have documented adverse birth outcomes among hairdressers, such as birth defects, infants who are small for gestational age, and miscarriage. Researchers also found higher rates of infertility and spontaneous miscarriages among female hairdressers than women in any other occupation. In addition, the International Journal of Epidemiology reported that hairdressers have a higher risk for breast cancer. Other research on nail technicians has described adverse respiratory, neurological, and musculoskeletal effects for the technicians themselves.
In the U.S., the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) recently analyzed data from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study (NBDPS), a large multicenter, population-based case-control study of birth defects. Scientists looked to see if people working as nail technicians experienced higher rates of birth defects in their babies. They reported in June 2021 that mothers who gave birth to infants with a congenital heart defect (including any heart defect, conotruncal defects, right ventricular outflow tract obstruction, and septal defects) were roughly three times more likely than mothers of infants with no birth defect to have worked as a nail technician during early pregnancy.
These same researchers also found that mothers who gave birth to infants with cleft lip or with cleft palate were twice as likely as mothers of infants with no birth defect to have worked as a hairdresser during early pregnancy. They observed similar connections in mothers working as hairdressers who had infants born with defects of the ear (anotia and microtia) and abdominal wall (gastroschisis).
Most of the research and data available on the occupational hazards of the beauty industry are observational – meaning that there is only a correlation or association observed between hairdressers and nail techs and birth defects, miscarriage, and infertility. There is no direct proof that certain chemicals cause these adverse birth outcomes. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to get this kind of scientific proof because it is unethical to knowingly and purposely expose pregnant women to potentially-harmful chemicals in the name of science.
Scientists Can Explain How Beauty Chemicals Cause Harm
Biological plausibility also strengthens the case against toxic beauty products and treatments. Biological plausibility means that scientists can explain how chemicals could cause the increased risk, demonstrating a cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to salon chemicals and harm to pregnant women and their babies.
The chemicals found in common salon products can cause adverse effects on the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis – at least in studies of rats. The hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis is a fancy word for the hormonal communication system between two glands in your brain (the hypothalamus and pituitary) and your ovaries.
Pregnant Beauty Industry Frontline Workers: Overworked and Underpaid
The other pregnancy health risk for hair stylists or nail technicians is the nature of their jobs. They have to spend long hours, hard at work on their feet, working in unusual positions, in restricted postures, or doing repetitive work. Joint pain, injury, and chronic overuse injuries are nothing new for those working in the beauty industry, but the risk for injury increases during pregnancy.
Pregnancy hormones relax joints, the pregnant belly changes your center of gravity, and back, spine, and joint pain are regular occurrences for all pregnant women. Aside from back injury, nail techs and hair stylists are at greater risk for carpal tunnel syndrome during pregnancy. Other industries are required under the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational and Safety Hazards Administration (OSHA) regulations to make accommodations for pregnant people to protect them from injury. Still, many smaller, independently-owned salons are not as closely regulated.
How to Reduce Your Occupational Risk If You Are Pregnant and Work In A Salon
Know your rights. In some parts of the U.S., nail technicians, aided by labor organizers, want to create a new council comprised of government officials, workers, and salon owners to decide healthier wages and labor standards. You can ask your employer for:
- better ventilation
- protective masks and gloves
- more breaks
- accommodations for your changing body to avoid muscle strains or back injuries.
NIOSH even published guidelines for how salons can make acrylic nail application safer for nail techs with simple steps like keeping dispensers closed and wearing long sleeves and gloves to protect skin from potential irritants and sensitizers.
And what about getting manicures and pedicures, your hair dyed, or other beauty treatments during pregnancy? In general, your exposure to harmful chemicals will be much lower than for people working in salons. Nevertheless, some pregnant people go less often to salons or find salons that use chemical-free products. Others hold off on acrylic nails or keratin-straightening treatments until after their delivery. If you continue dyeing your hair during pregnancy, look for a professional ammonia-free hair color with the least amount of p-phenylenediamine (PPD) and other types of pigment.
However, remember that many of these harmful chemicals can build up in your body over time. If your future might involve a pregnancy, you may want to make changes sooner rather than later. Look for well-ventilated salons, use more natural products, and weigh which beauty treatments are worth potentially harming your reproductive future. Remember your power as a consumer as well. Give your business to salons that use safer products, are well-ventilated, and pay their stylists and technicians more than minimum wage. You will send a message to salon owners about changes needed for a more sustainable and healthier beauty industry.