Occupational exposure in Ontario nail salons


The primary aim of this study was to better understand a range of occupational exposures to chemical physical and psychosocial hazards in Ontario nail salon environments.

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In recent years, nail salons have become abundant in Ontario. Toronto Public Health estimates that there are over 3400 establishments in the City of Toronto alone that provide nail services. Nail salons are small businesses often with high concentrations in urban settings. Workers are often new immigrants and are predominantly female. The employment circumstances of these workers are precarious; nail salon technicians are a vulnerable working group. We lack quality exposure information despite the fact that there are thousands of workers potentially exposed in Ontario. The hazards to workers in this environment are numerous, including chemicals, musculoskeletal hazards, infections and stress. Nail salon workers, owners and community groups are concerned about health effects from working in this environment; recently there has been high profile public attention in both the US and Canada.


Nail salons were recruited through street canvassing (door-to-door visits) and via social media (Facebook and Twitter). Once salons agreed to participate, all the workers in the salon on the agreed-upon sampling day were invited to participate and complete an informed consent form. For each individual participant, exposure measurements and observations were collected during at least one work shift. Specifically, we investigated:

  1. workers’ airborne exposure to particulates, formaldehyde, phthalates, organophosphate esters, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (including acrylates);
  2. workers’ skin exposure to acrylates (following the application of artificial nails) and exposure to wet work throughout the work day; and
  3. ergonomic and psychosocial stressors in the workplace.

Workers also completed questionnaires about their daily work tasks.

Recruitment and data collection was supported by community groups and health and safety system partners, including Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS) and Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centres (PQWCHC).


Chemical, psychosocial and physical hazards were assessed on 38 sampling days (2017-2018) in 21 nail salons. 53 nail salon workers wore sampling devices over the course of their work shift. These sampling devices were used to measure levels of 50 different chemicals in the air in the salons. We detected 27 of the chemicals in at least one sample; 23 were not detected in any samples.

Formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and toluene are chemicals known as the “toxic trio” or “Big 3.” Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and nose and throat irritant, DBP is an endocrine disruptor, and toluene may case spontaneous abortions in female workers. Formaldehyde and DBP were detected in all of the air samples from the nail salons, while toluene was detected in 39% of the samples. None of the measured levels of these chemicals exceeded the current Ontario occupational exposure limits, but some formaldehyde samples exceeded the ACGIH action limit, which is much lower than the current Ontario limit.

Methyl methacrylate (MMA), a known irritant, allergen and potential teratogen, was detected in 36% of the air samples, despite being banned for use in cosmetics in Canada. The MMA air levels did not exceed Ontario’s occupational exposure limit. We also tested 18 nail polishes for MMA, and found measurable levels in 5 of the 18 polishes.


Results from this study support that nail salon workers experience a diverse set of occupational hazards in the workplace. Exposure controls are needed to protect nail salon workers from potential adverse health effects. Future studies could investigate the health of nail salon workers and the impact of these exposures on the development of occupational disease.


This study was funded by a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development’s Research Opportunities Program.

Scientific Articles
  • Occupational Exposures among Nail Technicians in Toronto, Canada

  • Health and Safety in Nail Salons: A Cross-Sectional Survey

  • Occupational Exposure of Canadian Nail Salon Workers to Plasticizers Including Phthalates and Organophosphate Esters

  • Skin Exposure to Acrylates in Nail Salons

Research Team
Victoria H Arrandale, Tracy Kirkham, Sheila Kalenge, Sadaf Sanaat, Tammy Khuc, Daniel Song, Nicola Blagrove Hall, Cindy Pham, Shelley Qi
CREOD, St. Michael’s Hospital, University of Toronto
D Linn Holness
University of Toronto
Miriam L Diamond, Linh Nguyen, Pranav Srikanth, Haoyang Zhen, Stephanie Toigo
Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centres (PQWCHC)
Healthy Nail Salon Network (HNSN), based in Toronto