Seattle nail salons going 'green' to protect health

A relaxing treat after a hard day's work. A chance for mother-daughter bonding. A time to unknowingly breath in toxins...

While those three scenarios appear to have little in common, they have become the same scene at many nail salons.

As studies have begun to reveal the harmful effects of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), found in most nail care products, communities across the country are joining in the push for green nail salons.

Now Seattle is adding to the grassroots movement to create green nail salons and stop manufacturers from selling products with high VOC counts.

The Environmental Protection Agency awarded two groups, the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS) and Community Coalition for Environmental Justice (CCEJ), with $100,000 to help reduce toxic exposure in South Seattle nail salons.

But before nail salons can be transformed, the top priority for these groups centers on awareness of the issue and education on how to create a safer environment in the salons.

The organizations aim to aid salon owners by educating them about their options and then telling the industry that customers and salons won't accept highly toxic products anymore.

"You never really think about it being different than it is. You just kind of think that's just how it smells, that's just how it is," said Carnay. "The point of this project is to make people question, to make them realize that that's not just how it has to be."


CCEJ administrative coordinator Mel Carnay described her organization's role as "facilitating the community voice by looking at the consumer aspect of it and bringing in community involvement, which will take form in the advisory committee so that we can get input as to how this project should be guided."

According to both organizations the first efforts to educate salon owners were well received, but out of fifteen salons contacted for this story, 12 declined to do interviews.

However, Tram Duong, CCEJ outreach educator said the disinterest in participating in this article was likely because of the language barrier, which makes her role in this project even more crucial.

"I can talk with nail salon owners and nail technicians by their language, so they can accept me more easily. I'm visiting nail salons to collect information and talking with owners and nail technicians to know what they really need to help improve their working environment," said Duong.

Duong has visited 15 nail salons so far and said almost all have been very welcome to learning about the project and getting involved.

But the struggle to find a salon owner willing to talk about making their salon greener wasn't a complete failure.

The owner of Time 4 Nails agreed to talk about the project, even though she had never heard of it prior to the interview.

Helen Nguyen eagerly read over the project and repeatedly said throughout the interview "We don't know how to get rid of the smell, we try, but we don't know how."

Although Nguyen spoke of the many sanitary steps the salon takes, beyond performing proper sanitation procedures, reducing toxic exposure has been left out of the procedure.

But not because Nguyen doesn't want to make her salon safe, she simply doesn't know how.

"We'd like to know, they should contact us and tell us the information. If you show us how to do it we will because right now we don't know how to make it safe," said Nguyen.

And if the project succeeds, Nguyen not only will have learnt about VOCs and which products are less toxic, but also have taken the steps to make her salon the safe environment she wants it to be.

By combing salons like Time 4 Nails and Duong's outreach efforts the project seems to be getting closer to creating awareness throughout the community.

"This project has a big impact on the community and nail salons. Because I met and talked with nail salons owners, nail technicians, and some customers at nail salons, they said that this project was very helpful for them," said Duong. "Now they could be aware of what they were using or how working may be affecting their health so they would be more careful with [toxic exposure]."


"One of the challenges we're going to have to look at is you have to have meet them [salon owners] where they're at. You can't just have these lofty expectations of business owners and go why aren't you environmentally friendly when they aren't necessarily aware of the alternatives and don't know about the health concerns," said Carnay.

While CCEJ focuses on educating the community, ECOSS plans to work closely with the businesses.

"We're working with shops themselves. Part of this is we don't want to come in and say 'we know what's right, we know where your problem is'," said ECOSS Executive Director Charlie Cunniff. "At this stage what we're doing is working with the shops and asking them what do you think about this and making sure we're addressing their concerns."

Duong's efforts have already made a small impact because the salons she contacted lacked any awareness of VOCs and the risks involved.

"Some people thought that nail care products didn't have toxins. Some people said that they never pay attention to what nail care products had or didn't have, they just wanted to earn their living or did nails for their beauty. They didn't care about anything," said Duong.

In addition to the education Duong focuses on, the project also needs to develop strategies on how to educate the community, another speed bump in their way.

Toxic Beauty Project organizer Secret Charles, who just jumped into the project's lead a few weeks ago said her two focuses are forming the advisory committee and finding a way to best communicate the information about the toxins in nail products.

"As for the technical terms and words, and how you educate the community, I think that will need to be addressed so that this just doesn't fly over their heads and they understand the importance of it," said Charles.

And both organizations emphasized the point of the project is to help businesses help themselves, not to shut down nail salons.

"We want to let folks know this isn't an anti-business project. It's not saying the industry needs to shut down, it's more of a matter of a transforming the industry and transforming the way we do this particular kind of business so it's safer for everyone," said Carnay.


If the demand for beautiful nails won't dissipate then the next best option centers on education to increase the number of green nail salons.

"Personal beauty care products go back thousands of years because of this desire for beauty. We understand that having beautiful nails is a cultural trend, but we want to help people reduce their toxic exposure," said Cunniff.

With increasing studies about the affects of long term exposure to VOCs in nail care products released, Cunniff said it's time the industry and the businesses start taking the proper steps to make their salons safe.

The changes that can be made range from using low toxicity nail care products, safe containment of those products and proper ventilation.

Exposure to these chemicals has been linked cancer, reproductive complications and birth defects.

One industry, OPI has already reacted to this information by revamping their nail care products to remove the VOCs. Because restrictions against the nail industry, which is not regulated, are becoming more frequent CCEJ and ECOSS agree that their project will create more awareness, and therefore more demand for green products.

Even if the nail industry doesn't have regulations, it does have to answer to the market's demand.

And so do nail salon owners.

"This project helps people directly on a health issue that touches them that they may not even be aware of. We're raising the awareness and helping people make decisions so they can help themselves," said Cunniff. "The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today. The best time to change your practice is when you open, the next best time is today."


As ECOSS and CCEJ coordinate to educate the community and help salons transform into greener salons, the market for non-green salons will likely suffer.

Although Cunniff said he doesn't know yet what the cost will be for installing proper ventilation or purchasing less toxic products, he said there are some funds available to help salons make this transition.

"We don't know how much more expensive this could be, there could certainly be some costs, but I wouldn't necessarily characterize that as a problem because I think they are getting more of their clients demanding the changes, so businesses are going to be better off if they offer less toxic exposure," said Cunniff.

With some salons already on the green path and others ready to join, owning a green salon may become a necessity. And, as one owner testifies, the transformation pays off.

When Tammy Morgan opened her nail salon, Spa de'Mechelle, she had already decided that she wasn't going to allow her clients or workers to be exposed to VOCs.

"There's some things I wanted to from the very beginning. One was that we would only deal with natural nails, even though from a business standpoint it probably would've been more cost effective to have the acrylics," said Morgan. "The other decision I made going into this is that we were going to use organic products, or at least products that we know are friendly to the workers here."

So Morgan researched nail products, went to conventions and found two products she continues to use, Zoya and SpaRitual.

"We always look to find something that's environmentally friendly and safe for the technicians, but it's very difficult to find," said Morgan. "For us it's a selling point and I think in the long run it's worth it."

Morgan's predictions came true too. Her business exceeded its yearly projection in the first six months.

"I think having non-toxic or low toxicity products should be a top priority. My concern with the products is how exposure is going to affect the persons that use it. That's a real concern for me, it should be a concern for the customers going into the salon and it should also be a concern for the owner as well," said Morgan.

Although CCEJ and ECOSS said they can't force owners to transform their salons, Charles said she would like to see owners take more leadership for having a greener salon.

"Even though you're in a business to make a profit it shouldn't be at the expense of thir health, their fertility or the person who patronizes the company. After this information is out there I would like to see owners say 'Okay, it'll cost me twice as much, but at the same time I'm doing this because I care not only for myself, but also for the person who comes into this establishment," said Charles.

Although some salons have already made this decision to put safety first, the majority of salons may not even know about the risks of their products at this point.

In three years Cunniff said he hopes that the project has helped 100 salons make the transformation.

"I think the project is a very important one, education is critical and there has not been a lot of discussion about it. It's almost like it's this little dirty secret, but it is time for attention to be brought to it," said Morgan. "It really boils down to your business philosophy, but you can go to another manufacturer who has green products. Sometimes that's hard when the may be giving you an excellent deal, but you can step away and go somewhere else for the safety of the customer and yourself."

Jessica Van Gilder may be reached via

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