by Marsha Rakestraw

Like many girls, when I was younger I used nail polish (even though I preferred sports and tank tops to dolls and dresses). I wanted boys to think I was pretty, and so I did my nails (and put on make-up and the occasional dress).

Painting nails was done at home back then. Going to a beauty shop to get them done was a rare and expensive treat. But since the 2000s, the number of nail salons has exploded, and getting a manicure or pedicure has become a regular habit for many women.

Getting one’s nails done seems like a fun and harmless act – something to make us feel more beautiful and adventurous; something to do with friends or daughters — or sons; something to show off our special flair.

But a recent two-part series in The New York Times has revealed some of the hidden costs of nail salons.

“The Price of Nice Nails” looks at the plethora of nail salons in New York (NYC has almost twice the number of any other U.S metropolitan area) and the rampant abuse, exploitation, and discrimination workers endure. The investigation revealed that many workers are underpaid, when they’re paid at all, and often must pay a fee for their job and then undergo weeks of unpaid training. They can also have their pay withheld or be penalized for any number of reasons. Many salons have a caste system, depending on where the worker is originally from. Workers live in desolate conditions and can endure verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Their lives are almost unimaginably different from the people they serve.

“Nail salon workers are generally considered “tipped workers” under state and federal labor laws. Employers in New York are permitted to pay such workers slightly less than the state’s $8.75 minimum hourly wage, based on a complex calculation of how much a worker is making in tips. But interviews with scores of workers revealed rates of pay so low that the so-called tip calculation is virtually meaningless. None reported receiving supplemental pay from their bosses, as is legally required when their day’s tips fall short of the minimum wage. Overtime pay is almost unheard-of in the industry, even though workers routinely work up to 12 hours a day, six or even seven days a week. Since many of the workers are here illegally, they remain unprotected.”

Read the complete story.

In addition to the horrific working conditions, workers are regularly exposed to chemicals that can cause health problems for them and their children. In “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers” we hear the stories of workers who have suffered numerous health problems:

“… stories of illness and tragedy abound at nail salons across the country, of children born slow or “special,” of miscarriages and cancers, of coughs that will not go away and painful skin afflictions. The stories have become so common that older manicurists warn women of child-bearing age away from the business, with its potent brew of polishes, solvents, hardeners and glues that nail workers handle daily.

A growing body of medical research shows a link between the chemicals that make nail and beauty products useful — the ingredients that make them chip-resistant and pliable, quick to dry and brightly colored, for example — and serious health problems.”

Read the complete story.

What the two-part series doesn’t mention is that many nail polishes are tested on animals and some may include animal ingredients. Additionally, a lot of those chemical ingredients that are toxic for the body are also harmful to the environment. And then there’s the disposal of all those nail polish bottles (which are considered hazardous waste).

And of course many of us aren’t aware of these impacts, in part because it’s challenging and time-consuming for us to find out. There’s certainly no warning label on the bottles or on the shop doors.

Like with most challenges, there are solutions that do more good and less harm.

The simplest in this case is to forego nail polish.

We can also choose to do our own nails using vegan, cruelty-free, and lower-toxicity products.

If we’re set on getting our nails done in a shop, then we can shop around, ask questions, and be willing to pay more. We can also support worker organizing and awareness efforts.

One of the most important things to remember when we become aware of an injustice is that we have both the responsibility and the power to act in ways that can make a positive difference.