Safety Advocates Face Resistance at S.F. Nail Salons

The EPA has provided $120,000 to help salons reduce exposure to toxic chemicals, but some businesses have refused to accept aid.

At Sophia’s Beauty Lounge, Nataly Sun receives a manicure by Loan Dam. (Photo by Haiy Le)

When San Francisco created the Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program in 2010, it was the first city in the nation to pass legislation specifically for the purpose of encouraging nail salons to use safer products. Since then, conditions for salon workers have received a flurry of media attention, particularly after a May 2015 exposé in The New York Times highlighted abuses of salon workers in New York.

Much of that attention has since subsided, and Bay Area advocates are facing challenges in their effort to increase safety measures for nail salon workers because many business owners have been resistant to change.

In November, California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative — which is fiscally sponsored by Asian Health Services, an Oakland community clinic — received a $120,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The grant will be funneled into the city program, which recognizes shops

that have met nine criteria focusing on health and environmental conditions, such as having all staff wear nitrile gloves while working and only using nail polishes that avoid the “toxic trio” of dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde. The grant will also be used to make interest-free loans of $5,000 to nail salons to install air ventilation equipment.

But some have told the collaborative that they aren’t interested in dropping toxic products.

“Many of the owners are scared,” says Julia Liou, a co-founder of the collaborative. “When we told them these are the toxic trio products, they think, ‘My customers aren’t going to like this.’ We had to take a lot of time to build a relationship.”

But the six years since the program began in San Francisco, it has now been adopted by five California counties, including Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Alameda.

“When we started the campaign in 2009, San Francisco was the most logical place to start,” Liou says. “We knew Supervisor David Chiu’s record on immigrant rights and working with the Asian populations.”

To get the program off the ground, the collaborative worked with Chiu and the city’s Department of the Environment.

“It’s a win-win situation for both the city and collaborative,” says Guillermo Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment. “For the city of San Francisco, it’s about ensuring that workers are protected.” The department also manages the Pretty Doesn’t Stink campaign, which Rodriguez says generates awareness, drives customers to the shops, and provides free marketing for recognized salons.

The program is gaining ground in San Francisco, with 39 salons recognized in the city and 129 statewide, but there’s a lot more work to be done: The California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology recognizes thousands of licensed establishments across the state.

New statewide legislation will help on that front. Public health advocates are celebrating the September signing of the Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Bill by Gov. Jerry Brown. The law now turns the regional efforts into a statewide priority that will be administered by the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

A ‘NEW GENERATION’ OF NAIL TECHNICIANS

On a recent Friday evening at Sophia’s Beauty Lounge in the Mission District, nail technicians were busy pampering customers. Owner Sophia Nguyen, 40, says she is part of a “new generation” of technicians who prioritize their health. According to the nail salon collaborative’s website, up to 80 percent of California’s nail salon workers are Vietnamese immigrants. Many are low-income and have limited English skills.

Before Nguyen opened her own shop, she worked at other nail salons and began to notice that she and her coworkers were developing health conditions. But, she says, as an immigrant, she felt that she had to do whatever it took to put food on the table.

“There are a lot of Vietnamese people in the business,” she explains. “We do it because we are raised to be hard-working. We are also detail-oriented people and want to bring beauty for the customers’ nails.”

But after becoming pregnant, Nguyen says she realized she needed to consider her own health more. “I want to live a long life and be there for my two children,” she says. “Customers come in for one hour, but we sit in the shop all day.”

In a 2014 study published in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, researchers found that “women in the nail and hair-care industry may be potentially at increased risk for some maternal complications.” Vietnamese manicurists were also found to be more likely to have lower-birthweight babies and other maternal complications, compared to other working women.

These findings validate some of the whispers among the Vietnamese nail technicians, many of whom are women of reproductive age. Nguyen says she decided she needed to change.

She opened up her eponymous salon in 2013 and used the criteria from the Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program to guide her selection of products. The plaque recognizing her salon’s certification hangs proudly on the wall beneath a $20 bill from her first customer.

“Here in San Francisco, it’s especially good to have recognition that you have organic and safe products,” Nguyen notes.

Loan Dam, 36, has been working at Sophia’s salon for over a year now.

“It was important for me to work in a healthy environment,” she says.

Nguyen walks over and jokes with Dam, who she calls her “sister.” “I don’t call them my employees,” Nguyen says. “They’re all my sisters.”

On that Friday, Dam is giving Nataly Sun a pedicure. Sun did not know about the Healthy Nail Salon Recognition program, but says she appreciates the salon’s efforts to promote healthy working conditions.

“I noticed they don’t do acrylic nails here, but I can understand that,” Sun says.

RESISTANCE TO THE PROGRAM

A couple blocks from Sophia’s Beauty Lounge down Mission Street is another salon. It’s called Nails by Nancy, owned by Hang “Nancy” Duong, and it has a markedly different atmosphere from the higher-end Sophia’s.

Although representatives from the collaborative have visited Duong’s salon, Duong has resisted joining the Healthy Nail Salon Recognition Program.

“I don’t have the option at my salon,” she tells SF Weekly. “Other salons serve the high-end clientele who care for the recognition. My customers want the best price and the best nail experience. They prefer the nail chemicals that dry faster because they don’t have an hour to wait.”

And even with the micro-loan from the collaborative to install a ventilation unit, Duong says it will still be a big expense.

“It’s difficult to find the money for it,” Duong says. “I would still have to pay it back.”

Duong insists, however, that her salon is well-ventilated already. She points out the business’s high ceilings and says she makes sure to aerate it by opening windows. “Other salons are not as spacious as my shop.”

That night, Duong was giving a pedicure to a customer, Hilda Molinero. “I come here because I love [Duong],” Molinero says. “She’s adorable.”

“There are thousands of nail salons in California,” Duong adds. “But there are only 129 certified. What do you think that means? Many businesses do well even without this recognition.”

Comments like Duong’s are familiar to Liou of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, but Liou isn’t discouraged. Since celebrating its recent state legislative success, the collaborative now wants to take its model across the country.

“We want people to know that they can have knowledge and power to actually make change,” Liou says. “You can go directly to the policymakers and share your story, so that there’s accountability.”

Vi Nguyen is the co-owner of iColor Nail Bar in Charlotte, North Carolina. After hearing about the California law, she is eager to see something similar in her state.

“I make sure that my salon has healthy working conditions, and it would be nice to have recognition for it,” she says.

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