April 13, 2000
New Times Magazine San Luis Obispo, CA USA
The Heated Debate Over a
Nail-Bonding Chemical Touches on Issues of Health, Money, and Race
BY JEN STEVENSON
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
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
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
Statewide, California boasts more than
36,000 establishments licensed under the state Bureau of Barbering and
Cosmetology that offer barbering, manicurist, cosmetology, electrology, and
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
"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
* * *
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
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
"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
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
* * *
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
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,’"
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
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
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
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
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
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."
"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
* * *
For more than two decades now, the United
States nails industry has attracted scores of assimilating immigrants and
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
"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
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’
"They were saying things like,
‘Let’s go out there and get those Asian salons!’ It was like a witch
* * *
In 1978, when Sheridan entered the nail
business, she was a local pioneer–opening the first nails-only salon in the
"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
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
Jen Stevenson typed this story with
real, unpainted nails.
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