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Nail Salon Safety

Quick Tips #281

Nail salons continue to be a growing, booming business. As with most businesses, nail salons are not exempt from safety hazards in the workplace. The artificial nail industry has seen rapid growth, bringing changes in the services offered and the products used. With the increase in products used, there come additional hazards. The nail technician and client can potentially be overexposed to these hazards. Typical products include, but are not limited to paints, polishes, acrylics, glues and laminates.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates products in the cosmetic industry, including nail products. The FDA does not approve or inspect nail products before they are introduced into the market, but the FDA will occasionally inspect cosmetic manufacturers and take random samples for analysis. If a problem arises, the FDA can take legal action. Although nail salons typically only have a limited number of employees, they too must abide by OSHA legislation. Listed below are the standards that are most commonly cited by federal OSHA for nail salons with a Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code of 7231.

Standard Violation Description
1910.1200 Hazard communication
1910.141 Sanitation
1910.132 Personal protective equipment, general requirements
1903.19 Abatement* verification
1910.134 Respiratory protection
1910.157 Portable fire extinguishers
1910.212 Machines, general requirements
1910.305 Electrical, wiring methods, components & equipment

*Abatement means action by an employer to comply with a cited standard or regulation or to eliminate a recognized hazard identified by OSHA during an inspection.

Artificial nail products are composed of various chemicals, including but not limited to ethyl methacrylate (EMA), titanium dioxide, benzoyl peroxide, meth acrylic acid and polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA). The main ingredient for most artificial nail products is ethyl methacrylate. In 1974, the U.S. FDA banned a similar chemical, methyl methacrylate (MMA), for use in nail products because of its harmful effects during application. Exposure to MMA can cause acute (short-term) effects and chronic (long-term) effects. Some of the acute effects of MMA include depression of the central nervous system (CNS), irritation to the skin, eyes, mucous membranes and damage to the liver. Some of the chronic effects of MMA include kidney and liver lesions.

One commonly used product that deserves mentioning here is polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA). The FDA ban applies only to liquid MMA because only the liquid form of MMA is dangerous. PMMA is a solid. Many nail glues and wrap gels have a small amount of solid PMMA dissolved into them as a thickener. PMMA is harmless and perfectly legal because all the original MMA molecules have become bonded together in long chains—making them thousands of times larger than MMA molecules—and can no longer evaporate or penetrate the skin. Also worth noting is that mixing PMMA with liquid monomers, acetone or other nail remover solutions will not break it down into harmful, free MMA molecules. OSHA does have a power point presentation that informs about exposure to biological and chemical hazards. It can be viewed at

Another product that is being used more often, that has raised some health concerns for owners, workers and patrons of hair and nail salons, if they are combined, is the use of hair straightening products that contain formaldehyde.

On October 29, 2010 Oregon OSHA issued a release that even small businesses such as hair salons can be affected by the exposures to the regulated chemical formaldehyde, even in products labeled "Formaldehyde Free." A compounding factor is the various synonyms for formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is also known as methylene glycol or formalin.

The issue of concern came to the attention of the authorities when an employee of a salon reported various adverse effects like difficulty breathing, nose bleeds and eye irritation when using a popular hair smoothing product. This led to an investigation where over 100 similar hair care products were sampled in various environments and scenarios. The investigation revealed that it was "clear that the amount of formaldehyde in many of these products [was] high enough to trigger the requirements of OSHA's formaldehyde rules."

Because of the variables involved with each environment where these products are being used, it is difficult to tell if any individual was at risk at any given time during previous exposures. Moving forward, Oregon OSHA has issued this hazard warning that outlines and highlights appropriate course of action to help ensure workplace safety.

Please note that even though this issue was initially reported and documented by Oregon OSHA, it has similar implications wherever these products are used. However, there may be some variability based on the laws and regulations that apply to the specific location where the product(s) are being used. Further, this investigation revealed that the products, as supplied by the manufacturer, were not appropriately labeled, and the end users were not appropriately warned of the potential hazards of exposure per OSHA's hazard communication (right-to-know) standard. See Quick Tips #150: Hazard Communication Standard, 29 CFR 1910.1200.

The first step to protect against hazards is to eliminate them. To eliminate a hazard at a nail salon, either remove the hazardous substance or process, or substitute the hazardous product with a less hazardous or nonhazardous product. An example of substitution is the use of EMA instead of MMA. Although EMA is less hazardous than MMA, it is still a hazard. Since it is not always feasible to fully eliminate hazards, the next step is to engineer the removal of the hazard. Since EMA—even though a substitute for MMA—is still a hazard, ventilation is necessary. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) states that the best way to avoid overexposure to EMA is through local ventilation.

Ventilated Table

Researchers from NIOSH have found that a ventilation table best protects the nail technician against breathing EMA. The ventilated table is the most important engineering control for getting rid of EMA in the nail salon because the vented table places local exhaust ventilation close to the work area. The following are recommendations for a nail technicians work area:

  • Place local exhaust ventilation as close to the EMA source as possible. Exhaust this air outdoors. Charcoal filters that allow the air to be used over again are not recommended because it is hard to know when the charcoal is full. 
  • Build a ventilated table, or change a table you already own into a ventilated one (see Figure 1). Ventilated table sizes will vary from nail salon to nail salon. Choose a wood for your ventilated table that will not soak up the chemicals. If the table acts like a sponge, it may actually expose you to the chemicals you want to avoid. A veneer-coated particleboard works well for the table material.

Make a hole in the tabletop for an air intake (called the downdraft face). This downdraft face should be placed on the technician's side of the table. Cover the hole with a screen-like cover (or a perforated plate) to prevent objects from falling in. 

The client's side of the table should be a little higher than the technician's side. This allows the client's hands to hang over the downdraft face and be as close as possible to the local exhaust vent. (see Figure 2).

Make sure that enough air blows through the table downdraft to get rid of the EMA. The amount of air exhausted depends on its speed as it moves through the downdraft face and on the size of the table opening. However, too much air rushing past the fingernails may cause the artificial nail product(s) to crystallize.

An air speed of 6–20 fpm (feet per minute) directly above the 13- by 4-inch downdraft face works very well. A 22" baffle should surround the downdraft face to pull the moving air closer to the client's hands.

Different drying times are needed for different fingernail products and different application techniques. Although a stronger and larger airflow will collect more dust during filing, and dry the color coat faster, a slower and lower airflow gives better results for the artificial fingernail product.

  • Choose an exhaust fan that can exhaust at least 250 cfm (cubic feet per minute) of air and has a 1/4" static pressure. (A 1/8-hp centrifugal fan works well.) To prevent fan noise from getting in the way of talk or client comfort, you can do one of three things:
  1. Buy a quiet fan.
  2. Put a cover over a noisier fan.
  3. Buy an outdoor fan that is placed on an outside wall. The fan should have control settings. Use either a multi-speed or high-volume exhaust fan with a damper. You can find a fan supplier by looking in the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers directory under the headings of Fans or Fans, Centrifugal. Your public library should have this directory or you can locate it on the internet at The fan supplier may be able to install your fan, as well as supply the ductwork and other needed materials.
    • Provide enough makeup air to replace the exhaust air. If the makeup air is too weak, there will be negative pressure areas and perhaps drafts. The air intake, which pulls outdoor air inside, should not be placed near the building exhaust. If the exhaust and intake vents are too close, dirty air will be pulled back into the room. 
    • Make sure comfort fans do not blow directly on the downdraft face the strong air movement can interfere with the exhaust airflow.

When these methods are implemented, but further protection is still needed, respiratory protection is the next step.

The key chemical in the nail salon industry previously was methyl methacrylate but is now ethyl methacrylate. Both are categorized as organic vapors. Protection from an organic vapor requires a respirator with a carbon filter, activated to protect against organic vapors, not just a particulate respirator. If the contaminant is below the threshold limit value (TLV) established by ACGIH or the permissible exposure level (PEL) established by OSHA, it is considered a nuisance and a particulate respirator with organic vapor relief can be worn. However, if the contaminant is at or above the TLV or PEL, a cartridge style also known as an air-purifying respirator (APR) with organic vapor cartridges is needed to provide the proper protection. When there is not a TLV or PEL established, the chemical manufacturers recommendations for concentration are recognized as the exposure level guidelines.

Air monitoring is performed to determine the levels of contaminant the worker and/or client is exposed to. Once the results from air monitoring are determined, the appropriate respiratory protection, if needed, can be chosen.

Recap of steps for nail salon safety:

  1. Check all MSDSs to identify the hazards
  2. Do not use any products that contain MMA
  3. Have a ventilated workstation
  4. Take air samples by air monitoring
  5. Use the appropriate personal protective equipment if or when needed
  6. Disinfect all instruments between clients for at least 10 minutes in a germicidal solution
Healthy Work Habits
  1. EMA-soaked gauze pads should be placed in an oily waste can and disposed of daily in the appropriate manner. 
  2. No more than the needed amount of fingernail liquid should be poured into the closed dispenser bottle. 
  3. Nail technicians should wear personal protective glasses or goggles. When technicians remove artificial nails, chips of acrylic can fly off, creating a need for eye protection. When handling chemicals, goggles should be worn to protect the eyes from potential splashes.
  4. Technicians should wear personal protective gloves and long sleeves to protect their skin from acrylic dust. Slip on sleeve protectors can be used in place of long sleeves. Thin latex or nitrile gloves can be used which will have minimal effects on the technicians dexterity. 
  5. Technicians should wash their hands, arms and face with mild soap several times throughout the day to remove potential irritation. 
  6. Eating and drinking should not be allowed where artificial nails are applied. Methacrylates in nail dust and other salon chemicals can be carried accidentally to the mouth or face on a cup or other food items, which may cause skin rashes or cause health problems if swallowed. Reinforcing this nail salon safety issue with signage reminds nail technicians and the clients of the importance of this issue. 
  7. Smoking should not be allowed because many salon products are flammable. 


National Interstate Council of State Cosmetology Boards

Appearance Enhancement Advisory Committee

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Thomas Register

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)


(Rev. 11/2012)

Find even more information you can use to help make informed decisions about the regulatory issues you face in your workplace every day. View all Quick Tips Technical Resources at

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Please Note:
The information contained in this publication is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This publication is not a substitute for review of the current applicable government regulations and standards specific to your location and business activity, and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.

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