By Jenna Helwig
May 12, 2015
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Pregnant women are told to be careful when they get their nails done, to bring their own non-toxic nail polish from home. But according to a series in The New York Times it turns out the people at most risk at nail salons are the women who give us our manicures and pedicures.

I have long said that there is only one aspect of life in NYC that is less expensive than anywhere else in the country: manicures and pedicures. Within three blocks of my Brooklyn apartment I can get a manicure at four different nail salons for $10 or less. A pedicure will run me about $15. In the summer I get a pedicure every two weeks, and I sometimes bring my 9 year-old daughter with me. She likes to get alternating colors on her fingernails, and she was so excited when her feet finally reached the whirlpool in the pedicure chair.

While nail services are dirt cheap here in New York, for many moms, no matter where they live, a mani-pedi is an affordable luxury. It's pampering that helps us feel a little better about ourselves without breaking the bank. Which is what made the recent New York Times stories so horrifying.

The reporters for the Times spoke with salon workers and doctors to reveal that many of the workers, almost all women, suffer from long-term health problems caused by the chemicals they wield to make people like me look a little more polished. They are suffering from cancer, lung diseases, and debilitating skin injuries. Even more heartbreaking, some women have discovered they can't carry a baby to term, or the children they do have suffer from cognitive and physical disabilities.

Really, we shouldn't be surprised. Solvents, polishes, and acrylics – all ubiquitous in nail salons – are full of known dangerous chemicals. Three chemicals in particular seem particularly bad. One is listed as a reproductive toxin. Another can "adversely affect the developing fetus" according to Environmental Protection Agency. A third chemical is formaldehyde, a confirmed human carcinogen. In 2016 formaldehyde will be illegal in cosmetics in the European Union. But apparently we're just not that concerned about it over here.

And not only are these salon workers risking their health and the lives of their unborn children, they're doing it for incredibly low wages. Most are paid below minimum wage, and sometimes they're not paid at all. Yes, tips make up some of the difference, but not enough to pay a living wage. One salon in Manhattan pays manicurists only $10 a day. Most of these women don't speak much English, and some are in the country illegally. That gives them very little power to speak up.

Let me quickly add that while the situation is dire in New York, this is a national problem. There are over 17,000 nail salons across the country, and chances are if you think your manicure is a bargain it's exactly the opposite for the woman doing your nails. Sarah Maslin Nir, the lead reporter on the Times' stories, says the greatest lesson she learned doing her reporting is that, "There's no such thing as a cheap luxury. It's an oxymoron. The only way that you can have something decadent for a cheap price is by someone being exploited."

My first reaction, of course, is that I should start doing my own nails at home. But, if I do that and everyone else does that these women will make even less money, which doesn't seem like an ideal outcome. The Times offered three suggestions for being a "socially conscious nail salon customer", but, frankly, the first two seem unrealistic. Yes, it would be a good idea to interview my manicurist to find out how much her base salary is. But, honestly I can't imagine doing that while her boss stands nearby.

The best suggestion is probably the third one: Pay more, since the lower the price of the service the higher the probability that workers are making rock-bottom wages. But then, of course, nail services become more of a special occasion treat, at least for me.

The good news is that the stories spurred action. New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced emergency measures to protect exploited salon workers including inspecting salons, instituting new wage and health rules, and launching a multi-language campaign to educate workers about their rights.

I doubt change will come overnight, though. For my part I am going to do my nails at home more and do some research to find an ethical salon to patronize. I won't forget these women's stories the next time my nails need a little TLC. After all, what may be a cheap luxury for me is costing these women something of incalculable value—their health and well-being.

Jenna Helwig is Parents' food editor and the author of the cookbooks Real Baby Food and Smoothie-licious. Follow her on Twitter.

Image: Manicure via Shutterstock


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