Will Green Salons Nail the Problem of Dangerous Exposure?


In the growing sea of walk-in nail salons, green alternatives are few and far between, but there is still something to celebrate in the mounting crusade for chemical-free cosmetics.

Among the newest bars on the block in the Bay Area: Nova Nail Spa in San Francisco and Isabella Nail Bar in Oakland – both billed as upscale, environmentally healthy environments using strictly non-toxic products.

Nova describes itself as the city’s first true eco nail salon as it was designed using responsible materials, finishes, ventilation, pedicure seats, lighting and flooring. And it only uses non-toxic shades of OPI and Zoya polishes to avoid that “paint shop smell” associated with traditional nail salons.


Among its services is the Organic Paradise mani-pedi featuring an indulgent bath of geranium essential oil and fresh rose petals, finished off with a relaxing ginger body lotion massage. It costs $72 and there, perhaps, lies the rub. Some salon customers would rather pay half that for a quick in-and-out combo at the nail bar down the street.

“Many come to check out what nail products we use and like it because we use the top organic lines like Spa Ritual and we pay higher for this than regular products,” explains Nova owner Kim Tham, who also offers a $48 early bird special to women working near the Mission Street shop near the Moscone Center.


Across the Bay at true-blue Isabella’s, you can spend $58 for a combo, and pamper yourself with a refreshing and aromatic spa treatments. Its web page explains that it was opened with the goal of defying the pungent smell of acrylic products and “tacky” motel-like set-ups of most shops operating today.

The pungent smell they speak of comes from the toxic trio of toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) which safe cosmetic advocates are pressing the $35 million cosmetic industry to phase out of its nail polishes and other products.

Banned in Europe, the chemical compounds that make up phthalates have been linked to cancer, birth defects, chronic asthma and skin disorders, especially form frequent exposure. Adding to the fumes and the dangers are acetone, solvents, glues and disinfectants which also have been linked to health problems. U.S. watchdogs are quick to regulate hygiene to prevent fungal bacterias, as witnessed in California legislation, but slow to regulate the use of the poisons in the products.

Most at risk are Vietnamese immigrants who comprise 80 percent of the more than 90,000 licensed manicurists in California, alone. There are some 250,000 in America, including Korean and Chinese immigrants joining the fast-growing, money-making sector. These hard working, industrious women have carved a successful niche owning and operating salons and don’t want to risk their livelihoods or retaliation from making a stink. Going green offers a way out.

“It really is about changing the mindset of the workers and the customers,” explains Uyen Nguyen, owner of Isabella, which caters to a middle to upper clientele in the Montclair neighborhood and depends largely on referrals. “The mindset is one of being into the earth and good health and recycling and not focusing on making fast money from acrylics.”

That quick buck is what keeps some manicurists from working for Nguyen, even those who have complained their throats and lungs hurt at the end of the day. She keeps nine employees at one time and pays them well, hoping they will grow along with her. Issues over pay and mistreatment in the industry have surfaced lately, including a lawsuit last August on the part of manicurists in Newark, N.J. who alleged their salon employers failed to pay minimum wage and overtime and barred adequate breaks during shifts.

Nguyen says as word gets around about her green concept, more clients are coming from Berkeley and surrounding areas, and that some of her colleagues are now opening healthier salons and duplicating  her formula for success. Meantime, many other manicurists resist change out of fear.

“I know it isn’t healthy but what can I do?” asks Pong, a pretty 38-year-old single mother of two who works at Tower Nails in San Francisco where she does all of the acrylic nail treatments and hot wax hair removal. She immigrated from Can Tho in 1998 and supports her parents who live with her and her school aged children.


She is right to wonder what she can do, since the burden should really lie with the manufacturers who sell wholesale to the salons which often pay high rent to stay in business. To make a profit, women like Pong work long, hard hours, often six or seven days a week, sharing tips, eating quick lunches in the poorly ventilated rooms between services.

Since Vietnamese manicurists continue to use the hazardous products and don’t advocate for themselves, agencies like  the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative are working to advance an environmental health agenda for the nail salon sector in the state. Fiscally supported by Asian Health Services, an Oakland-based community health clinic, it reaches out to non-English speaking workers who are at a great disadvantage when it comes to accessing and understanding information on chemical dangers.

“One of the things we’re doing is compiling lists of the companies that have removed the toxic trio from their polishes, base and top coats,” explains Julia Liou, the director of program planning and development. “OPI, Zoya, Sally Hansen and the water-based Acquarella are a few that have committed to healthy change, but you have to research them since sometimes, they only take toxins out of seasonal shades.”


While advocates try to inform Asian women of the health risks,  consumers also need to brush up on chemical exposure, and to take a stand against the cosmetic industry with their pocketbooks. They can tell their neighborhood salons they prefer they buy the healthier brands, and start frequenting the emerging green nail bars, many of which are run by Asian women.

“Owners need to offer alternatives and the market needs to dictate the eco concept,” insists Nguyen. “This is how the healthy nail salon will become a trend.”

A Green Salon Near You

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.