New program aims to help immigrant-owned hair and nail salons switch to safer products

A person poses in front of greenery and a sign
Cali Nails owner Ngan Hoang, seen outside her salon on Jan. 23, started overhauling her nail polish inventory eight years ago to nontoxic products. The process took her four years to complete.
Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Have you ever checked the ingredients in a bottle of nail polish? How about hair dye or chemical straighteners? Many of these products do what they do thanks to strong chemicals that can be bad for our health.

Ngan Hoang, owner of Cali Nails in Minneapolis, has more experience with this than she would like. Her mother and aunt opened the shop in 1994 and she took over about ten years ago.

“We pretty much just used whatever product that was available to us,” she said. “It wasn’t until 8, almost 9 years ago, when I was pregnant, I think the doctor had mentioned something about coloring hair, getting nails done I thought, ‘oh wait … I sit in that all day.”

Hoang slowly switched over to safer products over four years. The University of Minnesota School of Public Health recently received federal money to talk to salon owners in the Twin Cities about doing the same.

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Sahan Journal reporter Joey Peters covered the program and joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about it.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Say, have you ever checked the ingredients in a bottle of nail polish? Bet you haven't. How about hair dye or chemical straighteners? Many of these products do what they do thanks to very strong chemicals that can be bad for our health. Ngan Hoang has more experience with this fact than she'd like.

NGAN HOANG: My name is Ngan Hoang. I am the owners-operator at Cali Nails. This year is our 30th year anniversary and my mom and my aunt actually opened up the shop. They've retired since then so I took over a decade ago. And we pretty much just used whatever product that was available to us.

It wasn't until maybe eight, almost nine years ago when I was pregnant. I think the doctor had mentioned something about coloring hair and getting nails done. And I thought, oh wait, what do you mean? I sit in that all day.

So I decreased the amount of hours I worked during the time that I was pregnant, but I really love doing nails. And I thought, well, I don't want to take myself out. Do I switch careers? What do I do? So I started looking into the products that were used and it takes you to a really deep rabbit hole.

CATHY WURZER: Ngan Hoang slowly switched over to safer products over four years. Now, there's a new effort by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health to help salon owners in the Twin Cities do the very same thing. Joey Peters has been reporting on this for Sahan Journal and Joey's on the line. Hey, welcome back.

JOEY PETERS: Hey, thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: It is tough, these chemicals. Oh my gosh. What are some of the chemicals that Ngan and others use?

JOEY PETERS: So there's three main, quote, "toxic" chemicals in conventional nail polish. It's dibutyl phthalate or DBP, toluene, and formaldehyde. And very prolonged exposure could lead to health effects like kidney damage, liver damage, birth defects, and even cancer.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. And by the way, these are used not only in nail salons, but also hair salons. Is that right?

JOEY PETERS: Yeah, or at least some of the products--

CATHY WURZER: Some of them.

JOEY PETERS: --like hair dye would possibly include formaldehyde.

CATHY WURZER: Yikes. And so folks that are exposed to this, as you say, there's a laundry list of potential issues. Have you had a chance to talk to anybody who's gotten actually sick?

JOEY PETERS: Well, one of the people who's part of this project is Amira Adawe. And she is Somali and helping organize Somali salons. And she had an experience with black henna, which years ago, was applied to her during Eid applied to her, and unlike more traditional henna, black henna can include that hair dye.

And what she experienced was some irritation on her skin, swelling on her skin, on her arm that led her to the hospital and led her to get prescribed pain medication for that and some ointment to deal with the swelling.

CATHY WURZER: Now, we have a cut here, a little bit of audio from Amira. And we should probably play this because really, she explains for folks who don't understand the dangers of these skin lightening products.

AMIRA ADAWE: Many women who are using this skin lightening products is to lighten their skin color. And they're getting exposed to toxic chemicals like mercury, hydroquinone, and highly pollutant steroids. And then also, added other cosmetics, especially in salon spaces, where people are using these toxic hair products or nail products.

This is not only salons, this is not only individuals-- community-wide chemical exposure is happening in these communities of color, especially immigrant communities of color. These immigrant or ethnic-owned salons, it's a safe space for these communities where they can have conversations. So how do we add this other component of well-being?

CATHY WURZER: So is she also collaborating with the University of Minnesota to work on this?

JOEY PETERS: Yeah, so she's one of the two community partners that the University of Minnesota chose to basically reach out to different types of salons. So she runs a nonprofit called the Beautywell Project and she is going to-- I mean, she already has deep connections with many East African hair salons, so she is going to kind of organize them to be a part of this project. Yeah.

CATHY WURZER: OK. Are there any other fixes that salon owners and those who work in salons can use beyond-- steering clear of some of these chemicals, is there any other recourse, I guess?

JOEY PETERS: One thing that I noticed when I went to Ngan's salon, Cali Nails on Lake Street, was right in the front entrance was a ventilation machine. And she told me she was granted that as part of a Hennepin County-wide project a few years ago that was similar that she said included 10 Vietnamese-owned salons. It's a little bit different from toxic products, though.

She was telling me the main purpose of that ventilation was to help with all the dust that will result from grinding nails--


JOEY PETERS: And doing nail work that can impact your breathing. So yeah, that's another concern kind of beyond the products. But ventilation is a possibility for sure.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah. And I'm betting not only are maybe some of these new products, but also some of the equipment must be pretty expensive?

JOEY PETERS: Yeah. And so that was a ventilation machine she got through a county grant, so with help from a government program. Yeah.

CATHY WURZER: Any financial support available to salon owners to help make the switch?

JOEY PETERS: Not as a part of this project. This project through the University of Minnesota-- so it's funded by an EPA grant that is supposed to tackle pollution at the community level. And this is going to be primarily done through education.

So this is a two-year grant. The first year is kind of organizing, getting the salons involved. The second year is educating them about these products. But the organizers behind this do hope to share their research and result with local public health agencies and Minnesota Department of Health and the legislature.

And they told me they plan to push for those agencies to create some sort of a direct incentive program for these salons to switch to these products.

CATHY WURZER: So if there happens to be a salon owner or an employee listening right now, where can they find information about this?

JOEY PETERS: So yeah, one is the Beautywell Project. That's Amira's organization, Beautywell Project. You can Google that. And then on the nail salon side, those people can reach out to the Vietnamese Social Services of Minnesota.

So those are the two community partners that are charged with basically direct interaction with these salons during this project.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Joey, thank you so much.

JOEY PETERS: Thank you. Great to be here.

CATHY WURZER: Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. You can read his story at We also have a link to it on our website, that's

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