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Green Nail Salon Grows Organically

New America Media, News Feature//Video, Words: Ngoc Nguyen//Video + Photos: Ann Bassette Posted: Sep 05, 2008

Editor's Note: Inside Nova Nail Spa you wont be hit with headache inducing fumes. They stock organic products and nail polishes free of chemicals linked to cancer and reproductive harm. Ngoc Nguyen covers the environment for New America Media. Ann Bassette is an editor at YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia. This story was supported by a NAM-administered fellowship from The California Wellness Foundation.

SAN FRANCISCO -- In the posh Union Square area of downtown San Francisco, Nova Nail Spa is a different kind of nail salon a green business with eco-friendly building materials. Step inside and you wont find the headache-inducing fumes from harsh chemicals. The shop uses a vegan substitute as a nail polish remover instead of the cheaper acetone. The scent of mandarin from orange-infused, organic products -- lingers in the air.

Ive been doing this job for 15 years, says Kim Pham, a manicurist and shop owner. I did acrylic [nails] before and I just get sick. A lot of sneezing and headaches and too much [exposure] to chemicals.

So when she and her husband, Don Kim, had the chance to open their second nail shop, they wanted to do things differently. They stocked organic products and nail polishes free of formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate chemicals linked to cancer and reproductive harm.

Its not just for the customers, Don says. We decided to do this because, [my wifes] working, we have a lot of workers, and my babies come and play here.

Kim is not alone in reporting health problems from exposure to chemicals on the job. Manicurists commonly report symptoms such as headaches, skin rashes and nausea. Some workers have had cancer and given birth to children with birth defects.

A coalition of advocates and nail salon workers and owners have organized to educate manicurists and consumers about safer and healthier workplaces, and some are looking to green nail shops as an alternative.

VIDEO: Nova Nail Spa Revealed

Changing customer tastes a greater demand for organic or non-toxic beauty products -- spurred the husband and wife team to design and build a green salon from the ground up. The salons interior features non-toxic paint, recycled denim for the insulation, and slate and bamboo finishes.

The shop is equipped with a state-of-the-art ventilation system. To disinfect instruments such as nail files and cuticle clippers, they use an autoclave, a machine commonly used to sterilize medical equipment. Cleaned instruments are sealed in plastic and used only once per customer.

The couple also wanted to set themselves apart from other nail shops, at a time when a slumping economy and bad news about infection outbreaks are hitting the nail industry hard.

We want to be different and unique. We dont want to be one of thousands and thousands of nail shops, Don says. Green is a big thing. We met a designerhe said yes, thats a good way to go. Thats the future.

The couple owns another non-green nail salon in the city, and they employ about 10 manicurists. Kim works as a manicurist in both shops, and says she feels better working at the green shop.

One main difference is Nova doesnt do acrylic nails.

Acrylics entail the use of strong chemicals and solvents to bind a fake nail to the real one. It produces dizzying fumes, while filing creates plumes of dust. Nova offers gel nails as an alternative to fake nails. Gel nails are used to coat a natural (or fake) nail. A UV light is used to cure the nail, or catalyze a chemical reaction that hardens and binds the gel nail to the nail bed.

Theres no smell at all. Theres no primer liquid, Kim says. This is harder. Its a lot more work and [requires] a lot of patience. It takes almost two hours. Each application you have to put bake under UV light for three minutes.

At $55, gel nails cost more than twice as much as the acrylic variety, but they last longer (up to three weeks), she says

When we first opened, it was hard for us to give up [acrylic]. People said gel was too expensive and they keep looking for acrylic, and we dont do it, she says. Then we talked to them. We started to have a few people try it on. They loved it. They think it is worth it.

The eco-friendly nail shop in Union Square has been open for one year. For the first several months, Kim says, business was slow and most clients were tourists.

Now, they are attracting repeat customers, a sign they are building a loyal customer base. Kim says the Union Square shop is making double the profits per month as their other nail salon.

Kim says their initial investment in the green nail shop was significant, and they had to increase prices for services to offset the higher cost of greener products. For example, the vegan nail polish remover they use costs about $8 for an 8-oz bottle, while a gallon of acetone costs the same price. The shops manicure and pedicure treatments range from $20-30 and $40-50, respectively, while a combo costs about $73.

Kim stocks both regular nail polish and two brands of polishes without formaldehyde, dibuytlphthalate (DBP), and toluene. Kim says she buys the reformulated nail polish by catalog for about $1 more per bottle. Kim says the store carries the popular brand OPI, because it offers a wider array of colors, and is popular among clients.

In 2007, OPI announced it would reformulate its nail polish to remove toluene. The company announced it would remove formaldehyde and DBP from its nail polish in 2006.

Older nail polish and the companys other nail products could still contain the toxic chemicals, says Alexandra Gorman Scranton, director of science and research at Womens Voices for the Earth. The group is currently surveying nail product makers to find out which ones do not contain the chemicals, and make the list available to nail salon owners and consumers in the fall. Thats a resource Kevin Burrell, executive director of Environmental Coalition of South Seattle, says hell be paying attention to.

His group, along with another local nonprofit, received a $100,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to help nail salons in the area become greener. Part of that effort has been figuring out how to define non- or less toxic products.

Burrell says he favors eliminating toxic chemicals and making safer chemicals from the outset, so workers and consumers dont have to sift through product ingredient lists to decipher what is safe or toxic.

In the meantime, his group is trying to tackle employee and consumer behavior.

Burrells group is working with shop owners and employees, who are largely Vietnamese women, to reduce exposure to fumes from solvents. Theyre advised to throw away acetone-soaked cotton balls in sealable bags and transfer chemicals in well-ventilated areas such as the bathroom. Workers are also advised to wear gloves and masks that filter out both dust and fumes. In California, 80 percent of manicurists are Vietnamese women.

A partnering organization, Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, works with the patrons, who are largely African American. The group reaches out to nail salons to get them to offer a discount to customers who request greener nail products.

Green salons could offer a way to help the industry prosper in a way that also promotes a healthier environment for workers and consumers. Burrell says business owners need help to make the transition such as micro-loans or affordable ventilation installation.

Burrell says hed also like to see minimum requirements for ventilation for new nail shops.

If you increase regulations on business, it drives up the costs that go into it, Burrell says. Naturally, that wouldnt allow the same number of people to start a business. The up front costs of a better circulated salon should be a cost of owning a salon.

Back in San Francisco at the Nova Nail Spa, Kim and Don are reducing costs in other ways. Even though the Union Square shop is twice as big as the couples non-green nail salon, the electricity costs at the green nail shop are 20-30 percent less than that of the older salon. The water bill is about the same, Don says.

Despite reducing waste, the use of toxic products, and energy use, the business owners arent getting any perks from the citys green business program, even though they rent retail space in a city-owned building.

Thats because the city hasnt yet set up standards to certify nail salons as a green business, says community organizer Lenh Tsan with the Asian Law Caucus, which conducts health and safety workshops at Bay Area salons.

For them, the investment in running a greener shop has paid off. Their green nail salon is making twice as much per month as their non-green shop in the city. And, theyre attracting more regular customers like Betty Marshall.

The San Francisco resident, who teaches part-time at a private school for boys, said she used to go to a salon in Pacific Heights, but now she goes to Nova, located just two blocks away from her Victorian.

Im pleased with the service and type of products. I stopped going far away, she says.

Marshall says she enjoys natural products, and tries to avoid shops that have the smell of acrylic nails.

For her manicure, shes chosen a pale pink shade from the regular nail polish rack, saying shes not concerned about chemicals in the product. A manicurist lathers a citrus-scented lotion on both arms up to her elbows and gives her a massage.

Marshall relaxes, smiles and says she likes the smell, the service, how it makes her feel.

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