The Ugly Truth: Demanding A Woman’s Right To Choose Non-Toxic Cosmetic Products

When is a manicure more than just a manicure? When it is about a woman’s right to choose safe beauty products, and it’s a right routinely denied.

California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed a bill (AB2125) to require the Department of Toxic Substances Control to publish guidelines for cities, counties, and cities and counties to voluntarily implement local healthy nail salon recognition  programs. The guidelines, to be published by January 1, 2018, builds on the work of the California Healthy  Salon Collaborative that started in 2009.

While these changes are a leap for protecting workers and customers, they are regional only. We need to replicate similar policy changes around the country to protect the more than 400,000 nail technicians, mostly women of color, including many new immigrants, working in approximately 130,000 salons. If we account for unlicensed workers, the numbers will be much higher.

In New York customers will soon be able to breathe a little easier while getting manicures and pedicures. New York’s historic ventilation requirements to protect workers and customers in nail salons statewide went into effect October 3.

With this recent action, all nail salons and other businesses that provide nail services in New York State will have to meet the standard set by the 2015 International Mechanical Code, which contains specific ventilation requirements to remove all chemicals, vapors, fumes, dust and other air contaminants from the salon and exhaust them safely to the outdoors.

This is a great step in the right direction, and a big victory for the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition led by mostly Asian and Latina nail salon workers. They have been advocating for this essential health measure which will protect all those who spend time in a nail salon, including workers, clients and business owners.

The reason we need stringent ventilation requirements is because of toxic chemicals in nail salon products. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the chemicals used in nail salons cause a range of health problems from itching and rashes to birth defects and cancer.

And these chemicals are not only in nail products, but are present in other products in the cosmetic industry. Protections also need to be extended to the dangers of all harmful chemicals used regularly in cosmetics in the personal care products industry. Formaldehyde exists in hair products and mercury is present in skin products. Chemicals banned in Canada and Europe are still used in this country.

The $60 billion U.S. personal care products industry is considered primarily a women’s industry; workers, customers, and most salon owners are women. Because of that gender divide, existing scientific data of the dangers is ignored, and attempts to limit the use of toxic chemicals is actively thwarted by the cosmetic industry with support from male elected officials.

Lack of research is not the problem; the lack of political will is. For years, advocates have been trying to pass the Safe Cosmetics Act without success.

In 2015, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act, designed to “protect consumers and streamline industry compliance by strengthening the Food and Drug Administration’s authority to regulate the ingredients in personal care products.”

The bill is a compromise, establishing higher reporting standards but also taking away the states’ right to pursue more stronger regulations. However, industry lobbyists are fighting even the limited changes. Sen. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) introduced another bill, with support from two other male lawmakers Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Bill Flores (R- Texas).

According to the New York Times, “Sessions, after introducing the legislation, became a favorite of the cosmetics industry,” receiving donations from industry executives and employees. The two co-sponsors, Johnson and Flores, also saw increased industry donations.

We do need to change the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to ensure effective regulation of cosmetics. However, the change needs to protect people not profits.

This is about much more than choosing a different nail color or electing for a foot massage. Women—and men—have the fundamental right to use and be surrounded by personal care products that will not harm them. Women have the right to choose safety.

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