April 13, 2000

New Times Magazine San Luis Obispo, CA USA

Pointing Fingers

The Heated Debate Over a Nail-Bonding Chemical Touches on Issues of Health, Money, and Race


As she has done nearly every day for 22 years, manicurist Karen Ann Sheridan opens the front door of her small downtown San Luis Obispo nail salon, the Nail Buff, at 10 a.m.–barely beating her first client of the day, who arrives with two steaming cups of fragrant tea from a nearby coffee shop.

Not merely a nail salon, Sheridan’s cozy little room, with its softly painted walls and tiled floors, is a showcase for local art and wares, a friendly stop for the building’s resident cat, and a haven of familiarity for her clients, some of whom have patronized her salon since she first opened.

As Sheridan meticulously files, buffs, bonds, and paints her client’s acrylic nails, the two women chat nonstop, catching up on two weeks worth of personal news. Fresh air filters in through the open front windows along with the noise of light morning traffic on Marsh Street, diluting the caustic smell of chemicals.

Sheridan’s nail salon is one of more than 7,166 in California, and she is but one of 88,758 licensed purveyors of this prolific industry built on vanity–an industry that is positively flourishing, especially here in the state of California.

But beneath the facade of shiny polish and flawless tips rumbles a growing undercurrent of concern regarding this profession, surrounding an issue that many call a matter of safety and legality and others refer to as a race war.

* * *

At the heart of the controversy is methyl methacrylate, referred to in the trade as MMA, a chemical substance commonly used decades ago by manicurists in acrylic nail procedures but now prohibited in California and 29 other states.

When acrylic nails emerged in the early 1970s, MMA–used in Plexiglas, Lucite, joint replacements, and numerous dental products–seemed well-suited for acrylic nails because of its bonding properties.

The process of applying acrylic nails involves mixing powdered acrylic and a liquid bonding chemical into a paste that's brushed over the natural nail or an artificial form or tip. When the paste hardens, the surface can be reshaped and painted. As the acrylic grows naturally with the nail, a "fill" is necessary, which involves filling the gap between the acrylic and the cuticle.

It didn’t take long after the advent of acrylic nails for complaints to start pouring in about MMA. The substance was blamed for a slew of unpleasant afflictions, ranging from skin allergies to permanent loss of the nail plate, respiratory system damage, and permanent loss of sensation in the fingertips.

Acrylic nails formed with MMA were often referred to as "dental acrylics" or "porcelain nails," and sometimes women who jammed a finger too hard or caught one on something had the entire nail cracked off or ripped from the finger.

In 1974, after being deluged by complaints about the side effects of MMA, the Food and Drug Administration banned it from nail products, calling it a "poisonous and deleterious substance."

When the FDA took legal action against one manufacturer of MMA, obtaining a preliminary injunction in 1974, others quickly switched to a legal chemical called ethyl methacrylate, or EMA, and manicurists rapidly followed suit.

That action put a halt to MMA use in salons across the country, but it also rather effectively put a stop to further consideration or research on the substance, leading to questions about the true danger of MMA that linger today.

While MMA was prohibited in nail products, its uses in the dental industry are still quite legitimate, and so it is legally produced today. And according to many in the nail industry, MMA is continuing to find its way into California nail salons illegally, to the detriment of unsuspecting clients who are unknowingly exposed to it.

And the salons can use the banned chemical with little chance of getting caught or paying too high a price if they do.

Statewide, California boasts more than 36,000 establishments licensed under the state Bureau of Barbering and Cosmetology that offer barbering, manicurist, cosmetology, electrology, and esthetician services.

A mere 15 Bureau of Barbering and Cosmetology inspectors are charged with keeping an eye on these facilities, which many within the nail industry say indicates a staggering lack of oversight.

"I don’t know that there’s a shortage [of inspectors]," said board representative Tracy Weatherby. "That’s just how many we have."

In California, a nail salon caught possessing or using MMA receives a first-offense fine of $25. A second offense garners a $50 penalty; a third brings a mere $100 fine. Beyond a third offense, or if a business refuses to pay a fine, more serious regulatory action is taken, Weatherby said, such as revoking a license.

Weatherby insists that the state’s policing job is adequate.

"The inspectors do daily inspections on a regional basis, and we also do targeted inspections in response to complaints we receive. So we do both random and targeted inspections," she said.

* * *

In the midst of this contentious issue are the discount nail salons. Crammed into crowded strip malls, hawking their services in busy shopping centers, these salons–predominantly run by immigrants and minorities–offer acrylics and other nail services for practically half the price of more upscale salons and usually with no appointment necessary.

While most upscale salons, like Sheridan’s, charge around $50 for a set of acrylic nails and $30 for a fill, discount salons start at $25 and $15, respectively.

As a result, they are not only attracting scores of new customers, but are also drawing valuable customers away from more expensive salons–luring them in with the promise of low prices and the convenience of walk-in service.

But many in the nails industry regard discount salons with distaste, saying that clients who frequent these salons are getting what they pay for. They accuse discount salons of cutting corners to reach the bottom line–by illegally using MMA, ignoring proper sanitation standards, and failing to undergo adequate training.

Discount salons are charged with acquiring MMA off the black market, and there are rumors of MMA being put into legitimately marked containers to fool inspectors or clients’ queries.

Critics say that the use of MMA weakens nails and damages the nail plate, making nails susceptible to intrusive fungi and infections.

"The main thing is that they’re working with illegal, contaminated products and not sanitizing tools–sanitizing tools properly is not inexpensive," said Sheridan, who uses an established product line called OPI Products Inc., based in North Hollywood.

Sheridan said her clients have come in with maladies they believe were contracted at discount nails salons, which she attributes to MMA use as well as improper hygiene.

"I’ve had to send clients to the dermatologists with infected cuticles and fungus conditions. I’ve had to send them before I could even work on them," she said.

Yvonne Johnson, owner of Nail Perfection in Arroyo Grande and a manicurist of 31 years, tells a similar story. She knows the effects of MMA, she said, because for several years before the substance was regulated she used it herself, with less than desirable results.

"Years ago I used MMA because it was the only thing available; I got it through dental suppliers," she said. "We very badly damaged nails back then, cracking the nail plate, deteriorating the nails."

Critics allege that discount salons obtain MMA illegally off the black market for a fraction of the cost of legitimate nail products. The substance is also is also brought in from overseas countries like China and Japan, as well as from Mexico, and sold underground.

"The reason for the low cost of discount salons is because they are using MMA," Johnson said emphatically. "For a gallon of product that we buy from the supplier it’s $200 or more; they get their product from their own suppliers and they pay anywhere from $15 to $20 a gallon, and they won’t tell anyone where they’re getting it from."

* * *

Across town from Sheridan’s salon, Nancy Mai quietly confers with an employee of her salon as the two consult an appointment book lying on the front counter of her nail salon, Marigold Nails in SLO’s Marigold Center.

For the time being, all three of her stylists are between clients, and they chat softly between their stations, which line the walls of the clean, well-lit salon.

Mai, who’s mother owns both the store she manages and Fresher Nails on North Chorro Street, charges $25 to $30 for a full set of acrylic nails and $18 for a fill. Her salon services about 50 to 60 regular clients, plus walk-in customers.

When the subject of the nail salon wars arises, the pretty Cal Poly student’s face darkens slightly.

"There is nothing we are doing differently from the more expensive salons," she said firmly. "We use good products; we use OPI products, the same quality that other salons use."

As she speaks, Mai’s story reveals an ugly side of this issue with a local edge.

In the two months that the Mai women have owned this salon, Nancy said, she has already received a harassing phone call from an unidentified female. Her mother’s store has received four in a year and a half.

"We’ve been harassed; they call us up and threaten us. They tell us, ‘We know you’re using MMA. That’s illegal. It’s against the law. That’s why your services are so cheap. We’re going to get people to come down and close your business,’" she said, her voice rising slightly with indignation.

"It happens to other salons, too. There’s nothing we can do about it. We try star-69ing them, but the numbers are blocked," she said, referring to the phone service that redials the number of the last incoming call.

Mai attributes the fact that her prices are half of more expensive salons to a willingness to make less profit, not to cutting costs by using inferior products.

"These are standard prices," she said. "The prices those salons are charging are ridiculous. One reason our prices are low is to accommodate students. Students can’t afford to come in and pay $50 for a set of nails."

Mai doesn’t see the nail salon wars as a race issue, simply a matter of economic sparring.

"Because discount salons are cheaper, places that charge a higher amount don’t get as many clients, so they’re always coming up with reasons to justify their prices–they say, ‘They use inferior products; we use better, more expensive products,’" she said.

Her voice softens when she speaks about the allure of the nail industry as a competitive economic outlet for such immigrant minorities as the Vietnamese.

"It’s hard to find a job these days," she said. "Coming from another country, it’s really hard to find a job. And to be a manicurist, you just have a certain amount of training, a certain amount of beauty school, and you can start working, making a living."

She shrugs a little when considering what the Mais plan to do about the harassment.

"My mom said we’re not doing anything wrong. So if they want to keep calling, they can," she said.

* * *

And while those amounts seem small, the industry is awash in money. In 1998, American women–and men–spent $6.5 billion on nail services, including acrylics, manicures, and pedicures. Acrylics are by far the biggest moneymaker, according to industry statistics compiled by Nails magazine.

Jennifer Hajali, vice president of Anaheim-based CA Chemicals, which manufactures both MMA and EMA, dismisses the claims that MMA is harmful to nail technicians and clients.

She believes that the nail salon wars are fueled not by concern for the health and safety issues in the industry, but by economic interests of brand-name marketing companies and upscale nail salons who are angry about losing business to discount salons.

"Marketing companies are really putting out a lot of information, trying to manipulate the market into thinking they need to spend a lot to get a good product or a safe product," she said.

Hajali said that CA Chemicals sells MMA and its acceptable alternative, EMA, for approximately the same price–$149 for a gallon of MMA liquid versus $152 for a gallon of EMA.

"Recently it’s been reported that there’s a humongous difference between the two, but the $15-to-$200 ratio is straight out of an OPI brochure," she said.

"I believe this has a lot to do with politics," Hajali said. "People are using the MMA issue as a way to try and scare people out of going into the competition’s stores."

"This has become a huge issue in the last five years," she said. "You’ve seen a huge explosion, especially in the Vietnamese community, of discount nail salons, and now salons that are charging $50 to $60 are competing with salons charging $25 for the same service."

The most prominent ethnic presence in the discount nail salon industry are the Vietnamese. Cyndy Drummey, editor in chief of Torrance-based Nails magazine, estimates that nationally, about 40 percent of nail technicians are Vietnamese. That figure in California is considerable higher, she said, upwards of 70 percent. And it’s projected that almost 90 percent of new nail industry growth is by Vietnamese and other minority proprietors.

Hajali argues that the nail industry is expansive enough to handle the new growth, and that discount nail salons are actually doing the industry a favor by introducing scores of new customers who would otherwise be repelled by the high prices of more upscale salons.

"There’s room for everybody in this industry," she said. "This is the United States and you can charge whatever you want for your services. So for these companies and salons to be accusing discount salons of charging so little because they aren’t spending enough money on products isn’t fair. Most of the people working in these discount salons are working on a very small percentage, and if they’re willing to, that’s their right."

Sheridan disagrees.

"I can’t believe that they would buy the same products I buy and pay the same price I pay and be able to offer the price they do without using inferior products–it’s impossible," she said.

* * *

For more than two decades now, the United States nails industry has attracted scores of assimilating immigrants and minorities.

Like the throngs of Europeans who entered the United States’ textiles industry en masse in the early 20th century, over the past few decades immigrants have been drawn to the nail industry because of the sparse amount of training and time required to start up a business–and because a mastery of the English language is not required.

Morris Goatley, president and chief executive officer of Gold Coast Education Inc. and owner of San Luis Obispo Beauty College, estimates that about 10 percent of the students that go through his manicurist license program are Asian American, a low amount due to the fairly homogenous ethnic makeup of this area.

Goatley has watched the discount salon controversy flare for decades from his vantage point in the industry. He has run SLO Beauty College since 1972, and he served on the state board of barbering and cosmetology from 1973 to 1977, after being appointed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.

He remembers well the stir MMA created 25 years ago when the government banned the substance while he was serving on the state board, and he's watched it continue to this day.

One problem with many immigrant-run discount nail salons, he said, is that there are complicated culture gaps and an ignorance of American regulation, which leads to a slew of problems.

"Their culture doesn’t blend in with American culture as far as the regulation we have in the United States is concerned, compared to in their country, and they don’t understand why they have to get a license and follow certain regulations," he said.

Acquiring a license, while requiring considerably less training than earning, say, a college degree, is not necessarily a simple process.

The state of California requires that those desiring to become licensed as a manicurist be at least 17 years old and obtain 400 hours of training in a state-approved program before taking a written and practical state exam to earn their licenses.

These programs are not inexpensive either. Typically, a student can expect to pay more than $800 for 400 hours of instruction. At San Luis Obispo Beauty College, the 11-week program costs $2,000 plus the cost of tools. Fortunately, the school has worked out an agreement with Allan Hancock College, which pays students’ tuition costs so that they only have to pay for tools.

When aspiring manicurists don’t get licenses, opening a salon bereft of going through the legal procedure, Goatley said, they bypass valuable training that helps them provide a safe, hygienic service.

"I’m not picking on anybody, but I know there are a lot of diseases and funguses coming out of those salons," he said, acknowledging that the problem is more prevalent in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, which house thousands of discount salons run by immigrants.

Drummey believes that the issue is tinged with racism, especially targeted toward the Vietnamese because they are joining the ranks of the nail industry in droves.

"I think there is a racial component," she said, "I think that’s not an uncommon business trend, what you see happening in the nail industry. There are plenty of other businesses you can look at where an immigrant wave has come in, bringing drastically different business practices into the market, and it changes things.

"In discount salons the strategies are high volume, low prices; it’s a strategy that is difficult to compete with. It’s like McDonald's vs. the mom-and-pop store. I don’t think it’s fair to say they’re all bad or dirty; there are bad salons in every category."

Hajali agrees that the battle between established upscale salons and minority-run discount salons has created what she calls a racism-tinged "witch hunt."

"I absolutely think it has become a race issue," she said. "Marketing companies have turned this into a race issue. I’ve been in trade shows where company sales representatives were out there telling people what they can do to compete with the ‘Asian’ salons."

"They were saying things like, ‘Let’s go out there and get those Asian salons!’ It was like a witch hunt."

* * *

In 1978, when Sheridan entered the nail business, she was a local pioneer–opening the first nails-only salon in the county.

"The nail salon industry was nonexistent at the time," she said. "Which is one of the reasons I decided to go into the business."

Today it’s a different story. In this county alone there are nearly 100 nails-only salons and hundreds of beauty salons, many of which offer nail services.

That, according to Sheridan and Johnson, has led to a lack of oversight.

"There aren’t enough inspectors for the whole state," said Sheridan emphatically. "I feel that they should inspect us yearly, and it’s always a surprise inspection as it should be, like an audit."

"I welcome it because if you operate your business correctly you should have no fear of a state board inspector," said Sheridan, whose last inspection occurred two years ago.

"I get inspected probably every third year; it’s more frequently now than before," she said. "They’re tightening up on rules and regulations, especially since the Vietnamese came into the business; in that way it’s been a benefit for us."

But opinion on the effectiveness of inspections also seems to be divided over racial lines.

Mai says her salon has already been inspected by the state board twice in a matter of months, and Fresher Nails has had three visits from state inspectors in a year and a half–a curious contrast to the one visit every three years experienced by Sheridan.

"The inspector came by right before we took over, and then he came last month," she said. "He says he makes it to all the salons."

Mai laughs when asked if there is a shortage of regulation in the nail industry.

"No, definitely not," she said emphatically.

Jen Stevenson typed this story with real, unpainted nails.

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