Elevated Levels of Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Nail Salons: Study

Four years ago we published the findings of a scientific study demonstrating potentially dangerous levels of chemicals present in nail salons. That study found the presence of four toxic chemicals (Toulene, Formaldehyde, Dibutyl Phthalate and Methacrylate Compounds–the primary chemical compound in artificial nails) at levels that presented potential health risks for salon workers.  Now a new study has replicated the findings from previous research demonstrating there are toxic levels of carcinogenic chemicals in nail salons and in some cases the toxic levels can be higher than those found in auto garages and oil refineries.  The latest study examined levels of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the inside air of nail salons. More specifically, the chemicals that are commonly found in nail products (benzene, formaldehyde, ethylbenzene, xylene and toulene) were measured inside of several nail salons. The study then went a step further and linked the presence of toxic chemicals in salons with self-reported adverse health symptoms of salon workers.

The risk for adverse symptoms experienced by some nail salon workers is not surprising when you consider that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that salon workers who are exposed to these potentially toxic chemicals (benzene, in particular, is a proven carcinogen, which has mostly been linked to the development of blood cancers, source) experience an elevated level of risk:

Studies documenting the health problems of nail technicians often describe respiratory, skin and musculoskeletal issues. Respiratory problems, unsurprisingly, were typically associated with the reporting of workplace exposures such as poor air quality. Some of these chemicals are also linked with birth defects.

-D. Maron, Scientific American

nail salon toxins

Study overview

The researchers studied workers in 6 nail salons in the Colorado area and also modeled the impact of the increased exposure to benzene and formaldehyde over 20 years on the risk of the workers developing certain types of cancer. The risk for squamous cell carcinoma (lung cancer), head and neck cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma was projected to increase in all of the workers. Strikingly, they calculated that the relative risk of developing leukemia due to exposure was over 100-fold greater in some of the workers. (source)

Study Abstract

Excerpt:  Indoor levels of formaldehyde, as well as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, were measured in 6 Colorado nail salons. Personal exposure VOC measurements and health questionnaires (n = 20) were also performed; questionnaires included employee demographics, health symptoms experienced, and protective equipment used. Cancer slope factors from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and anthropometric data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were then used to estimate cancer risk for workers, assuming 20-yr exposures to concentrations of benzene and formaldehyde reported here. Results show that 70% of surveyed workers experienced at least one health issue related to their employment, with many reporting multiple related symptoms…Cancer risk models determined that 20-yr exposure to formaldehyde and benzene concentrations measured in this study will significantly increase worker’s risk of developing cancer in their lifetime. Source

Should consumers be concerned about visiting nail salons?

Experts say that the limited time consumers spend inside nail salons per visit is not enough to pose any significant health risks.  While most nail salon workers in the current study reported health issues related to their employment, the statistical probability modeling estimated nail technicians who work more than 20 years (at an average of 50 hours a week) experience enough exposure to formaldehyde and benzene that may increase their cancer risk. The average consumer occasionally visiting nail salons would not be exposed to these levels of toxic chemicals.

That said, consumers who have sensitivities to these chemicals and/or who are pregnant or have health conditions such as respiratory problems may choose to limit their exposure to the indoor toxins present in nail salons.  While some communities and salons have taken extra steps to enhance the ventilation and air quality inside nail salons consumers who want to minimize exposure to VOCs may choose to do their own manicures/pedicures at home where they can better control the amount of fresh air circulating indoors.

What is next?

More research needs to be done–especially longitudinal (long-term) studies–to better determine the health risks on technicians working in nail salons. Additionally, requirements for better ventilated salons and protective equipment for workers, as well as the development of safer, less toxic products are all needed.



Journal Reference:  Lamplugh, A., et al.  Occupational exposure to volatile organic compounds and health risks in Colorado nail salons, Journal of Environmental Pollution, Volume 249, June 2019, Pages 518-526.

Study: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2019.03.086


pink nail polish bottle


Many toxic and potentially hazardous ingredients, including solvents, plasticizers, resins and acids, are commonly found in nail care products. Three top ingredients of concern in many nail products are:

Toluene – used in nail polish – it is a clear, colorless liquid used to make products such as dyes, paints, paint thinners and explosives. Exposure to toluene can affect the central nervous system with low level symptoms such as headache, dizziness, and fatigue. Toluene is also an irritant to the eyes, nose and throat. At very high exposures, toluene has been found to be toxic to the kidneys and liver, and is a possible reproductive toxin.

Formaldehyde – used in nail polish, it is a preservative that has many uses, one of which is embalming. Formaldehyde is an irritant to the eyes, nose and throat, and exposure can lead to coughing, wheezing and asthma symptoms. Repeated skin exposure can lead to skin irritation and an allergic rash called dermatitis. It is also a known human carcinogen.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP) – used in nail polish as a plasticizer. DBP has been removed from nail polishes sold in Europe. It is a possible endocrine disruptor, reproductive and/or developmental toxin.

You may be interested in seeing these still relevant articles from our archives:

Cosmetics makers under fire on nail polish chemicals

Consumer Alert: Beware of Toxic Chemical DBP in Nail Polish