Decreased lung function, breast cancer, miscarriage, depression and neurological disease. These are just a few of the health and disease risks that salon workers disproportionately face while on the job, according to a new report on the impact of toxic chemicals within the beauty and personal care industry.

Yesterday, Women’s Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit working to eliminate toxic chemicals from workplaces, homes and communities, released “Beauty and Its Beast: Unmasking the Impact of Toxic Chemicals on Salon Workers,” which highlights decades of research on beauty care workers and proposes a number of recommendations and policy solutions for creating healthier working conditions. According to the latest data, 1.2 million people work in the beauty care industry as hairdressers, cosmetologists, nail salon workers and other types of personal care workers, with women making up the vast majority of the sector’s workforce. Despite serious health risks, typical beauty care sector jobs tend to be low-wage ones, with the average 2011 hourly wage for hairstylists, hairdressers and cosmetologists, including tips and commission, coming to just $10.91 an hour. The report also noted that U.S. nail salon workers, of which 51 percent are Vietnamese, typically earn less than $18,200 a year. Report author Alexandra Scranton writes:

Many salon workers are contractors renting booths in a salon or misclassified as contractors (when they should be classified as employees) and thus do not have many of the same benefits or rights of being an employee, such as health care, sick leave or job security. Nail salon workers are a largely immigrant population, commonly with limited English fluency skills, which makes it difficult to access safety information or navigate the regulatory environment.

The report lists more than a dozen toxic chemicals to which salon workers are regularly exposed, some of which can be avoided by using safer alternatives. For example, dibutyl phthalate, which is found in nail polish, is a reproductive toxin and can cause birth defects; toluene, which is found in nail glue and hair dye, is associated with liver damage and pregnancy loss; ammonium persulfate, which is found in hair bleach, can lead to asthma and dermatitis; and formaldehyde, which is found in nail hardener and keratin hair straighteners, is linked to cancer and dermatitis. The result of such exposures is that 60 percent of salon workers experience adverse skin conditions, such as dermatitis, on their hands, with the problems beginning as early as cosmetology school, according to the report. In addition, salon workers are at increased risk of giving birth to low birth weight newborns, experiencing miscarriages and developing several types of cancers, including breast cancer, lung cancer and multiple myeloma (a cancer that begins in the bone marrow). Salon workers are also at greater risk of dying from neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and motor neuron disease.

To dig deeper into the impact of such occupational health risks, let’s look at skin conditions. According to the report, a number of studies have found that workers’ skin problems began early in their careers — for example, one study of hairdressing students in Australia found that nearly 60 percent were already experiencing skin problems on their hands. Other research found that 40 percent of Swedish hairdressers and more than 70 percent of Danish hairdressing apprentices reported hand eczema beginning during vocational training. The report also cited research finding that workers said the skin conditions made their work more difficult and disrupted their emotional and social health.

On the topic of respiratory health, the report cited a study of medical centers in 15 U.S. states that found hairdressers were four times more likely to be diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a deadly chronic lung disease, and another study of nail salon workers in Boston found that breathing problems and nasal symptoms were common work-related occurrences. In the area of reproductive health, the report noted anecdotal evidence that many salon workers tend to leave their jobs while pregnant due to concerns about chemical exposures. And while the science is still emerging on the relationships between chemical exposures and adverse pregnancy and birth outcomes, some studies do show that salon workers may be at increased risk for such problems. For example, a survey of cosmetologists in North Carolina found a slightly increased risk of miscarriage among women who worked full-time during their pregnancies, the report stated.

But despite the serious risks, report author Scranton writes that state boards that regulate the beauty industry “rarely are specific enough to address toxic chemical exposures in salons” and enforcement of existing occupational safeguards is few and far between. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has regulatory jurisdiction over cosmetics, does not review all products before they hit the market and federal law does not require manufacturers to prove their cosmetic product ingredients are safe before they’re sold to customers.

To address the problem, the report offers a number of recommendations and solutions. It calls on hair and nail salons to use products free of toxic chemicals when possible, urges workers to wear protective gear, and calls on employers to ensure proper ventilation and offer employee safety training. The report also calls for stronger federal authority to regulate cosmetics as well as the establishment of local safety programs, such as this San Francisco-based program that recognizes nail salons that choose safer products.

To read a full copy of the new report, visit Women’s Voices for the Earth.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.