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The Beauty Industry's Dirty Secret
by Ngoc Nguyen
SAN FRANCISCO - When it comes to the 20-billion-dollar a year manicure industry in the United States, consumers are more likely to fear foot fungus, not the beauty products themselves.
That despite the fact that the nail industry uses 10,000 chemicals in its products, 89 percent of which have not been safety tested by any independent agency, according to a recent report by the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.
That's got advocates worried not only for consumers, but nail salon workers.
"We are also very concerned about worker health -- typically, women of colour, Asian immigrants and Asian American women," said Felicia Eaves, a national organiser with Women's Voices of the Earth. "They spend lots of time, 10 to 14 hours, working with these products. We know that many of these women have health effects, problems with spontaneous abortion and other health problems."
Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not safety test ingredients used in cosmetic or personal care products before they hit the market. That research is carried out by an industry-funded group. Consumers are left to sift through the tiny typeface listing ingredients on the back of the bottle.
For nail salon workers, many factors go into a safer and healthier work environment, including better ventilation, protective gear and awareness of workplace exposures.
Efforts to reach out to nail salon workers and owners on health and safety are sprouting up across the United States. Along with education and research, advocates are also pushing for reforms at the industry and governmental level on chemical policy.
Eaves' group helped to found the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of public health, women's, environmental and consumer groups and others, whose goal is to push the beauty industry to use safer alternatives.
Advocates won a victory with the 2005 passage of California Senate Bill 484, the Safe Cosmetics Act, to take effect next January, which for the first time requires manufacturers to disclose to state officials if they used chemicals linked to cancer or birth defects in their products. In the past, manufacturers could omit ingredients from labels, claiming the right to protect trade secrets, but the Safe Cosmetics Act requires reporting all carcinogenic compounds under this category as well.
On the job, nail salon workers come into contact with chemical hazards linked to illnesses, cancers and reproductive harm, including birth defects. The known or suspected carcinogens include phthalates (found in nail polish), formaldehyde, benzene and methylene chloride.
Connie Nguyen, 46, has worked in the beauty business for 10 years. She said she's had some health problems, including difficulty breathing, skin allergies and occasional dizziness. She said wearing a mask can help to filtre out particles released from filing acrylic nails, but it doesn't protect against fumes.
"I cannot blame what happened on my work, but I do not have an answer why I got it," said Nguyen. "Even though in a salon they do different kinds of work -- you don't necessarily sit down and do acrylic nails, but the chemicals still affect your respiratory system strongly. No doctor could tell me you have these kinds of problems because of the work you do, but personally if you don't have the answer, you have to think something must cause it."
Some cosmetic makers dispute a connection between phthalates and reproductive harm, stating that studies have only been carried out on animals. And the industry claims its phthalate levels fall within FDA limits. However, advocates argue that those levels are too high. The European Union has banned phthalates from all of its cosmetics due to health concerns.
"OPI is one of these companies, that sells to 70 countries... so for the customers in Europe, they have to take the chemical out of their products to be in compliance with EU laws," said Eaves with Women's Voices of the Earth. "We know that if you can take the chemicals out of the products in the European market, you can do the same for the women in the U.S."
Despite health concerns, the popularity of the nail profession is booming.
The nail industry has tripled in size in the last two decades. The majority of workers are women, and nationally, an estimated 42 percent are Asian. In California, home to a fifth of the country's manicurists, an estimated 80 percent are Vietnamese. Of that number, half are of child-bearing age.
The nail trade is fast, easy and cheap to learn, said Nguyen, and doesn't require a high level of English language skills. More attractive is the earning potential. Nguyen said nail salon workers like herself can typically make 2,000-4,000 dollars monthly..
"A lot of Vietnamese who come from Vietnam recently or in the near future, they already have a plan to come here and get the license quickly and get into it," explained Nguyen. "They are very young, very aggressive and when they come to America and make a few thousand dollars a month, it is very difficult for any organisation to tell them 'you have to think twice.'"
A couple of years ago, Judy Le enrolled in cosmetology school and was on track to enter the beauty business, like most of the women in her family. At the same time, she participated in a youth programme through the Oakland-based Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice. The POLISH project brings together youth and nail salon workers to learn about and organise around toxins in personal care products.
Armed with knowledge about cancer-causing ingredients in beauty products, Le said she questioned her instructors in cosmetology school. "I did talk to my teacher about it [the chemical hazards]," Le said. "But the programme didn't talk much about harmful ingredients. We weren't given this information. The programme didn't focus on health hazards. It focused on the money-making aspect."
Le's participation in POLISH did make her think twice about becoming a manicurist after getting her cosmetology license. Now 20 years old, she works part-time as a hairstylist, which she said she feels exposes her to less dangerous chemicals, and is working towards a nursing degree.
Participating in POLISH hasn't dampened her dream of one day owning a beauty shop, but Le said she'd like to incorporate safer alternatives into the business of making people feel good about themselves.
"We started learning about products with toxins and places to go to get alternative products without toxins," Le said. "We learned to make our own products at home; for instance, we mixed strawberries and baking soda together to make our own toothpaste. It's healthier and better."
Dana Parades, organising director with Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, said her goal is not to prevent women from entering the nail business, which has helped many immigrant women and communities to thrive and stabilise.
"We want to support large efforts to make sure the industry can thrive and protect workers," said Parades. "We're working to promote corporate accountability by getting the companies that make these products to use healthier and better ingredients. It's an unfair choice workers have to make. We need to build awareness and put pressure on company to make healthier products so workers don't have to make an unfair choice between their livelihood and their health or the health of an unborn child."
So far, the pressure from health and environmental groups and consumers appears to be working. Last month, three major U.S. nail polish manufacturers -- Sally Hansen brand, OPI Products and Orly International, Inc. -- announced they would be reformulating their products to remove chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm, including dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene and formaldehyde.
Studies have linked DBP to reproductive system problems in newborn boys.
There are growing media reports of what many realised for some time. That toxins in skin care, cosmetics and other personal care products are having a terrible impact on health. The legal limitations on chemicals in some countries are being implemented inconsistently and slowly.
The real changes will occur as consumer regard, knowledge and choice grows. Already the winds in the market are shifting but major companies have simply tried to cash in on this shift through superficial, often cynical marketing practices, particularly the use of words such "organic" or "natural" on packaging.
In reality the only guarantee of purity are products that have been certified organic... products like Miessence.
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