Toxic Beauty: How To Visit A Salon Ethically

While they may be associated with “frivolity,” beauty supplies are far from a harmless and unimportant “girl thing” that everyone can safely ignore.

Jul 9, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

Visits to the salon are serious, and profitable business, whether you’re going to get your regular cut or splurging on a mani-pedi because you’re having a bad day. Yet, those visits often come at a high cost to workers, something frequently concealed from consumers, some of whom might be disturbed to know that their nails, and more, are making people sick. It should be possible to visit a salon ethically, for those who want to do so, and the first step is making people more aware.

Salon workers are often low-paid, especially at cheap salons like those offering $5 manicures. They may be renting stations, in which case they’re pushed to turn as many clients over as possible to make the rent, or they’re employees of the salon, which in turn pressures them to generate high profits or get out. Four in ten are Asian immigrants, many of them women of childbearing age with no access to health care, and limited English skills.

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No Miss polishes are supposed to be a green alternative; they're pretty easy to find at natural food coops and yuppie grocery stores. 

And they’re routinely exposed to toxins on the job, including cures, solvents, polishes, dyes and other beauty products, which are not necessarily made with things that are good for the body. Take the Brazilian blowout, for example, which has been in headlines of late for its cancer risks. For frequent clients, this can definitely be a health concern, but for salon workers, it’s especially dangerous, because they’re working in crowded spaces with limited ventilation, inhaling fumes all day and absorbing toxins through their skins.

Long-term salon work can contribute to the development of skin conditions, respiratory illness, cancer and a host of other conditions. Those who speak out about unsafe working conditions run the risk of being fired, as do those who attempt to organise workers and raise consumer awareness about these issues. There are always more low-cost workers available, including women who don’t know about the health and environmental risks as well as immigrants desperate for work opportunities.

This problem isn’t limited to salons -- WE ACT notes that many “ethnic personal care products” sold directly to consumers also contain health hazards. Skin whitening creams, hair straightening products, and other products used both at home and in the salon on women of colour contain a dazzling and disturbing array of environmental toxins. That’s bad for the women using them, the people applying them, and the environment.

Organisations like the National Healthy Nail & Beauty Salon Alliance are working on this issue from a number of angles. One involves the promotion of both worker and consumer education, making people aware of the high cost of dangerous beauty products. For workers, training in how to use such products more safely is key, as is lobbying to get business owners to create safer working conditions. The installation of fans and provision of gloves, for example, can protect workers from some hazards.

In addition, promotion of ecologically friendly salon products is part of the mission as well. This has proved an uphill battle with the supply chain, in part because such products are more expensive to manufacture. Some also don’t work as well, which becomes a sticking point with salon customers who dislike the idea of paying more for a product that’s not as effective, even if they are worried about the environmental and personal costs of beauty.

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I use them occasionally, but they take forever to dry and they tend to flake quickly. 

Beauty has always come at a high cost, from women sickening themselves by taking arsenic to look more pale to companies deliberately selling toxic whitening creams in the global south. That doesn’t mean, though, that it always has to be that way, and a careful evaluation of the industry could reveal ways to turn it into a just and healthy place for customers and workers alike.

Consumer pressure to develop ecologically-friendly and worker-safe products would force suppliers to seriously research them, and to address some of the barriers making it hard to get these products into the field. There’s no reason workers should be inhaling things like formaldehyde and bleach on the job -- and no reason regulatory agencies should be lax on beauty supplies.

While they may be associated with “frivolity,” beauty supplies are far from a harmless and unimportant “girl thing” that everyone can safely ignore. Not in an industry worth billions of dollars a year and involving some of the largest companies in the world. And not in an industry where the exploitation of women has become a routine and expected part of the trade, from those who paint nails in cut-rate salons to the women packaging the products in Mexican maquiladoras.