Viral Nail Salon Story Spotlights Everyday Toxins

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A new chemical safety bill and many toxin-free consumer choices are now available. Ask: What's in this product?
Many toxin-free consumer care products are now available.

A must-read is last week’s New York Times’ viral nail salon expose, if you haven’t already. The two-part series is the paper’s most shared story, and it trended world-wide on Twitter. The series has hit a real nerve by highlighting the industry’s horrendous and unhealthy working conditions for mostly Asian-immigrant manicurists. In response to the public outcry, four days after the article’s online release, Governor Cuomo issued emergency rules to remedy many of the issues. Here’s to gutsy investigative journalism making a difference.

The nail salon series also shone a welcome spotlight on the health hazards of everyday toxins. It’s smart to know that just like the products used in nail salons, most consumer products also include untested and unregulated synthetic chemicals. And just like nail salon workers, people are also getting sick using products that are assumed to be safe, tested, and regulated. 

Our year-long series, Beneath the Surface: What’s in Everyday Consumer Products, has been examining the safety of many products: nonstick cookware, tap water, flame retardants, and “pretty” scents. Appropriately enough, our first article asked the question: What’s in nail polish? Answer: Most mainstream brands eliminated the three carcinogenic chemicals and are labeled “3-free.” But as the Unvarnished series pointed out, many salon products still contain potent chemicals.

Here’s the key takeaway: “There have been efforts in recent years to overhaul the 1938 law and more strictly regulate cosmetic chemicals, but none made headway in the face of industry resistance. Since 2013, the products council, just one of several industry trade groups, has poured nearly $2 million on its own into lobbying Congress.” The upshot is, buyer beware.

Over 80,000 synthetic chemicals have been launched to consumers. Both the Federal Drug and Food Administration law from 1938 and the 1974 Toxic Substance Control Act are woefully outdated. Did you know that all chemicals in existence prior to 1974 were deemed okay? Really.

The effect of an unregulated marketplace is that synthetic chemicals are being tested on the population as a whole. The New York Times’ salon series nailed the point how continued exposure to legal toxic chemicals has impacted manicurists’ health, and possibly even their children’s health. 

There is good news, though.

On the legislative front, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act is a bi-partisan effort to update the TSCA. The bill still sits in the Senate committee. Some are highly critical of the law’s potential to meet consumer expectations that government is on top of testing and regulating. 

On the consumer front, Baltimore’s-own Jasmine Simmons who owns the ‘green’ Scrub Nail Boutique in Fells Point says it best, “It’s so much easier these days to find affordable cleaner and greener products.  It just doesn’t make sense to use the toxic stuff everyday.”

She should know – she used to apply acrylic nails for years and realized something was wrong when she realize she could no longer smell the nail product’s strong odors. “I opened Scrub Nail Boutique to offer a clean, fume-free experience using 3-free and 5-free nail polishes,” she says. “We make our scrubs on site. Scrub Nail Boutique doesn’t even offer acrylic nails.”

Tips to reduce exposure to everyday toxic chemicals:

Ask: What’s in it? Just being mindful that mainstream consumer products contain questionable ingredients is a good first step. Have you ever wondered why Axe products are a crazy blue color, and can be smelled from several rooms away?

Vet your favs: Check to see if your favorite personal care products include phthalates or questionable ingredients by using the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep 68,000 product searchable database.

Be an insider and get educated:  Read our Beneath the Surface series! Upcoming topics include lawn care, diet drinks, coffee, and tap water.  The leading policy and educational groups to know are the Green Science Policy Institute and Environmental Working Group. Both offer easy-to-read and smart newsletters on how to live a more toxin-free life.

Shop Clean and Green: Many companies choose not to include synthetic chemicals and questionable ingredients. These companies market this strategy right on the packaging. In Baltimore, many stores do the work for you and offer products that avoid many chemicals. Whole Foods, MOM’s Organic Market, The Body Shop, Aveda, and the Wegman’s organic section have ample selections of make up, lotions, soaps, and personal care products that may be organic, or have eliminated some chemicals.

4. Choose “green” detergents and soaps: Many soaps and detergents explicitly list on their packaging fragrance-free and/or phthalate-free, or make use of natural oils.

5. Choose your air fresheners wisely: As with other products, verify the fragrance source — especially if it’s on-all-the-time room freshener near a child’s room. S.C. Johnson, the maker of Glade products, has discontinued phthalates.

7. Avoid cooking and storing food in plastic: Replace plastic containers with glass. Plastic coded #3 and #7 often contain phthalates. Many plastic wraps and plastic bags no longer contain some phthalates, but questions have surfaced about the replacement chemical.

This article is part of the year-long series, Beneath the Surface: What’s in Everyday Consumer Products.  Articles in this series will examine how prevalent synthetic chemicals are in everyday products, and the consequences of their use to our health and our environment. Articles in the series:

Is Nonstick Cookware Safe?

What’s That Pretty Smell Messing with our Hormones?

How Flame Retardant are American Breasts?

Big Fish: Getting Smart about Chemicals with Baltimore’s Toxin Guru McKay Jenkins

How green is your mani-pedi?

Buying Safe Seafood in Baltimore’s Fishbowl

Filtering Baltimore’s drinking water: It’s worth the trouble.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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