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Are You a Horrible Person for Getting Your Nails Done in a Salon?

nail salon hazardsLast fall, we told you why your corner nail salon was probably the stuff of nightmares—for you and its employees, who sit day in and day out inhaling a toxic stew of godforsaken chemicals and being woefully underpaid for it (if they’re being paid at all). Now comes a new reason to question the quest for perfect, shiny-baubled nails: According to a New York Times investigative report, workers are often suffering from extreme health afflictions (miscarriages, lung diseases, cancer) due to the chemicals they work with, and they are often undocumented immigrants who are refused wages and/or tips, abused on the job with no one to report it to, and forced to sleep in cramped New York City living conditions.

The cost of getting a mani-pedi is much, much worse than we ever dreamed. In response to the Times report, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has assembled an emergency task force to improve working conditions and salon safety.

Many of us have become so accustomed to doing our nails for a night out, summer vacations, or just as a pick-me-up on a terrible day. It’s almost an ingrained societal pressure. But when my own health concerns heightened a few years ago, I scaled way back on my nail treatments—stopping manicures altogether and only getting summertime pedicures with my own Zoya polish and remover. None of this took a lot of concern about worker safety, though I did often ask employees about their lives, where they live and how long they’ve lived here. Sometimes a language barrier was present; others, I was able to learn more about in broken Spanish. I didn’t know about the hierarchy and utter isolation many of the manicurists live in.

Or worse, that new to our country, they are taken advantage of by salon owners, often forced to pay to learn treatments, or docked wages for three months at a time. Many make $10-$30 per DAY in the most expensive city in the U.S. It’s unconscionable. Many women I spoke to over the weekend asked each other warily, “Are you ever getting a manicure again?” Some said they would go back to doing their own nails, however bad the result.

The questions raised by Sarah Maslin Nir are difficult. If workers don’t have protection, we are party to their exploitation. If they don’t have people lining up for pedicures, the salon owner may simply let them go. If we don’t become more aware of the chemicals in nail products, and stop demanding services such as gel and acrylic treatments that may be even more taxing on the health of the consumer and the employee, demand will continue to remain high. If we don’t choose a salon that treats its employees well, everyone suffers.

And thanks to more great reporting from the Times, here’s how to make sure your next manicure isn’t making someone’s life hell.


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