Nail technicians are exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals every day. The dust and vapors generated from products are close to the breathing zone of you and your clients and can cause a variety of long-term health problems. While they aren’t lethal, they can irritate the delicate membranes of the eyes, nose and lungs. “This irritation may cause a burning or itching sensation, which is a warning sign that you need to reduce your exposure to that particular product before any serious damage is done,” says Jeff Cardarella, president of Aerovex Systems, Inc.. Proper ventilation can remove any potential inhalation hazard and help ensure safe air quality. Don’t assume that your salon is exempt from these needs—ventilation is vital if you do any kind of nail enhancement services. Even if you only perform manicures and pedicures or your salon smells fresh and clean, you still must take the necessary precautions to properly ventilate your space.
Air Purifying Myths
Nail salons present unique ventilation requirements. The most common misconception is that ventilation is necessary to control odors within the salon, when in fact ventilation should be used to control vapors and dust. Another common mistake is thinking that just because something smells unpleasant, it’s harmful to breathe. Cardarella explains, “Sometimes vapors are readily apparent because of a distinctive odor, but if you can’t smell anything, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any vapors present.” Doug Schoon, chief scientific officer of CND and author of Nail Structure and Product Chemistry (Second Edition), states, “Odor doesn’t determine the safety of a chemical. Smells are vapors stimulating special odor-detecting cells in the nose. Use proper ventilation, and odors will disappear with the vapors.”
Keep in mind that general heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems (HVACs) designed for offices, schools and other nonindustrial settings are inadequate for keeping potentially hazardous substances at “safe” amounts in the air—this type of ventilation dilutes contaminants in the air, but does not completely remove them.
To adequately protect both nail technicians and clients, local exhaust ventilation should be installed. Local exhaust ventilation captures and removes contaminants at their source before they reach the air you breathe. It protects the breathing zone and is preferable to have as close as possible to the source of emissions to keep them vented to the outside of the salon. Local exhaust systems can also be mounted on the wall or ceiling. Some use flexible hoses that can be placed near the breathing zone to increase usefulness. Any such systems must be professionally designed and installed to ensure effectiveness.
Your best ventilation bet—and the only one that should be used in a salon environment—is a commercial-grade, high-quality unit that utilizes a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter and activated charcoal. HEPA filters are very useful for filtering out fine dust particles, which are often microscopic and continually circulate in the air. Cardarella says, “These particles may not be visible to the naked eye, but can easily enter your respiratory system.”
But while HEPA filters are great for dust particles, they do not capture vapor molecules, which are thousands of times smaller than the tiniest dust particle. This is where activated charcoal (also called activated carbon) comes into play. A special process creates an extremely porous and super-absorbent material that captures vapors in tiny crevices. These units usually have several blower speeds; a higher speed rushes by too quickly for the activated charcoal to do its job, so choose a slower speed for more efficient absorption. Schoon says, “I recommend that the unit have a four-inch-thick bed of activated charcoal, which weighs a bit more than five pounds.”
The combination of activated charcoal and HEPA filters is ideal. Activated charcoal can work with an outdoor venting system or a portable air cleaner. Also, a HEPA prefilter is essential because dust can clog up the activated charcoal bed or filter, making it useless.
Finally, watch out for air cleaners that claim to remove odors using “ozone air”—otherwise called “pure air,” “activated or energized oxygen” or “triatomic air.” They wrongly suggest that ozone is a healthy or safe form of oxygen. Even in tiny amounts, ozone is a hazardous air contaminant and should be avoided.
To ensure that your salon is properly ventilated, follow these steps:
1.) Assess the dimensions of the salon. First and foremost, you should know the volume of air that needs to be ventilated. Choose a system that fully ventilates the amount of square footage you want covered, including ceiling height. “Large salons usually need more than one unit. Several units will outperform one larger unit,” says Schoon. Outdoor venting is the preferred system, but if there is no convenient outside access for ducts or vents, then you’ll have to consider other options.
Assess your salon by asking these questions: What is the square footage of your salon? Do you have easy access to its exterior through a wall, window or roof? Do you need the system to be portable or permanently mounted? How many stations does the salon need to ventilate?
2.) Flooring. This is also an important consideration —monomer, acetone and other product vapors migrate to the floor. Schoon says, “Carpeting is not appropriate for salons. It can become a big source of indoor air pollution and oftentimes traps dust and debris, which can later be released into the air.” If carpet is your only option, it needs to be shampooed regularly to prevent debris accumulation; old, soiled carpet should be removed completely.
3.) Customize. Choose the system that works best for your salon. If you have access to the outside, try a flexible-tube local exhaust system linked to an outdoor venting system. With this type of system, you can link several stations into one exhaust system, which is very cost effective, even for one table.
Another option is a ventilated nail table linked to an outdoor venting system. This is great for a salon that already has ventilated tables and can install ducts to the outside.
For portable ventilation solutions with no outside access, a flexible-tube local exhaust system vented through a HEPA filter with a three-to-four-inch-thick activated charcoal system works best. These systems are usually more costly than outdoor venting, but are most effective for a portable solution.
Or, you can use a nail table vented through a HEPA filter with a three-to-four-inch-thick activated charcoal filter system. This is perfect for a salon that has already invested in a ventilated table.
Another option is a commercial-grade, high quality HEPA filter/activated charcoal room air cleaner unit containing at least 18 pounds of activated charcoal. These are not as effective, but work well in conjunction with local exhaust systems. Used correctly, they will make a great improvement in air quality.
Installing an effective exhaust system with individual exhaust vents for each station is preferable. If possible, the exhaust should be vented outdoors in a manner that meets local building code requirements.
4.) Maintain your system. Once you have selected your perfect system, don’t forget to maintain and clean it on a regular basis for it to run efficiently. A local HVAC specialist can ensure that your system is adequate for the space and keep it running properly.
An activated charcoal bed or filter should be replaced every three to four months with normal usage, depending on the thickness of the charcoal bed. “The thicker the bed, the longer you can go without changing it, but you shouldn’t go more than a year,” says Schoon. An activated charcoal bed is like a sponge—once it’s full, it cannot continue to absorb vapors. Also, completely saturated filters are a fire hazard since many of the absorbed vapors are flammable. Filters cannot be reused or cleaned.
5.) Protect yourself. When filing or shaping nail enhancements, some technicians wear disposable masks to filter the air they breathe. Surgical masks help prevent the spread of germs, but not the inhalation of dust and vapors. Dust masks protect you from dust particles, but not against the inhalation of vapors. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests wearing a dust mask with an N95 rating. This rating means it will block 95 percent of the tiniest dust particles that can be inhaled deeper into the lung. Also, wearing a mask with a one-way valve allows you to exhale easily, increases comfort and prevents moisture from accumulating and fogging eyewear.
6.) Product use and storage. Keep nail products and dispenser bottles closed when they aren’t in use. NIOSH recommends using bottles with narrow throats and pump dispensers. Dappen dishes should be covered when not in use and should not have an opening greater than one inch. This will reduce evaporation and exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.
Do not use bulk containers when performing services. Instead, transfer products from large containers to smaller, properly labeled containers. Perform this task in a well-ventilated area, such as outside or near an open window or door and avoid skin contact.
Keep a metal trash can with a self-closing lid at every workstation to dispose of used wipes and paper towels as soon as possible. Believe it or not, the majority of odor in nail salons comes from the trash can.
Lastly, the tops of ventilated tables and other vents should be clear of any obstructions, including towels.
For more guidelines on inhalation and skin exposure to nail products visit