Clearing the Air

Lower health risks for your staff and clients by raising awareness about the risks of VOCs.



You’ve just finished your lunchtime stroll in the park and are returning to work at your spa. You take a deep, cleansing breath, open the entrance door and it hits you: an odiferous blend of candles, nail lacquer, hair color and massage oil. Typical? Yes. Harmless? Maybe not. If you’re entering a room that gives off a high level of VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, the health and safety of people at your spa may be compromised on a daily basis.

VOCs are carbon-containing gases that are emitted from solid and liquid materials. There are 500 to 1,000 identifiable VOCs that may be present at your spa at any given time, according to Dr. Marilyn Black, founder and chief scientist at the Greenguard Environmental Institute in Atlanta. This is because they come from a multitude of sources. “Most of the materials we use—flooring, paint, furniture, etc.—are sources of VOCs,” says Black. “Personal care products, including nail polish and candles, also release these gases.”

Besides offending our noses, VOCs can have a wide range of physical effects on the human body, the severity of which depends on the type of VOCs involved, the intensity and length of exposure, and the individual’s sensitivity level. Initial symptoms of exposure cited by the EPA include eye irritation, nose and throat discomfort, respiratory distress, headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue and skin reactions. Jennifer Taggart, Los Angeles City Environmental Affairs Commissioner from 1996 to 2005 and founder of The Smart Mama, a website dedicated to reducing children’s toxic exposure, cites even more serious health problems related to excessive VOC exposure, which include damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system, birth defects, developmental toxicity and cancer.

“Remember that children breathe faster so they get a heavier dose of VOCs during exposure,” says Black, “and the elderly have a body burden buildup of VOCs so they feel the effects faster.” Pregnant women, people with chronic illnesses and anyone on drug therapy should also steer clear of VOCs.

But VOCs aren’t so easy to avoid. “You find VOCs in common household paints,” Taggart says. “Perfume contains numerous VOCs; in fact, almost any product with a scent has some VOCs. There are VOCs in cleaning products, bath products, cosmetics, foam furniture, carpets and more.” (See Sidebar: Indoor VOC Sources.)

There are currently no regulations governing indoor air—only guidelines that have been established by health agencies such as the EPA, OSHA and the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership for Environmental Energy and Design program. Federal and state regulatory agencies use the results of research studies on the effects of VOCs on humans and animals to determine health advisory levels and set safety limits. However, the National Conversation on Public Health and Chemical Exposure, a government, nonprofit and industry group collaboration, has released an Action Agenda outlining steps to ensure chemical safety.

Disarming the Beast
If you can’t completely eliminate VOCs from your indoor space, the best way to minimize their impact at your spa is to identify high-VOC areas and try to reduce their levels and concentrations. The complexity and cost of measuring individual VOCs is prohibitive to most day spa owners but, fortunately, there’s an unscientific way to approach this. “If you go into a space and there’s a strong smell, it’s a good indicator that there are VOCs present,” says Black.

Here are some ways you can reduce the problem:

1. Ensure good ventilation
Since spas work with so many different products, ventilation is of utmost importance. “VOCs are emitted from both solid and liquid materials,” says John Rigdon, environmental lab director at Sherry Laboratories in Daleville, Indiana. “The best thing a spa owner can do is ensure their facility is well-ventilated. Fans, windows and exhaust systems can help mitigate the presence and effect of VOCs.”

2. Reconsider some products
“The tough thing about spas is that almost all consumer products release VOCs,” adds Taggart. “The best candle options are plain beeswax or soy. For skincare products, stay away from any synthetic scents that could have hormone-disrupting phthalates and try to stick with essential oils.”

3. Make wise building and décor choices
When building or expanding your space, Taggart suggests choosing low- or no-VOC paints and formaldehyde-free insulation. “When selecting furniture, stay away from polyurethane foam and vinyl. Go with wool, silk, and other natural fibers like cotton, but not the easy-care, no-wrinkle fabrics that are treated with a formaldehyde finish,” she says.

Low-VOC Redesigns
Many spas have done their homework on VOCs, making a concerted effort to clear the air of these potentially damaging compounds. Spa director Shanan Kelley reached for VOC-free paint when she helped reopen the Anjou Spa & Salon in Bend, Oregon, in 2009. “It’s really high-quality, thick paint that has no smell,” Kelley says. “We have a lot of clients who are very sensitive to smells; one in particular came in the day after we painted and she was fine.”

Stan Woodman and Gina Norman of Kaia Yoga Complete Wellness Center in Greenwich and Westport, Connecticut, provide all organic and chemical-free spa products along with a VOC-free environment. “We decided to go VOC-free and to utilize as many green techniques and supplies as we could,” says Woodman. “As yogis, we aim to leave no tracks and do no harm.”

Woodman’s and Norman’s goals required intensive effort, at least initially. “In 2007, when we first built out our café in Greenwich, we had to do a lot more research to find unique, recycled plastic tables, backsplash, baseboards and counters. We worked with recycled paper shelving, VOC-free, milk-based paints and jean insulation in the walls,” says Norman. “Opening Westport in 2010 was a lot easier. Times have changed and there are so many more products, with costs being close to the same.”

“VOC-free paint is now readily available and basically the same price as other paint,” says Bridgette O’Neill, owner of Le Rêve Organic Day Spa & Boutique in Santa Barbara, California. Le Rêve’s practices also include the use of soy candles with cotton wicks and flame-free, rechargeable candles where possible.

As public consciousness about environmental hazards increases, spa owners need to be ready to respond to their wellness-oriented clients’ questions about the safety of their spa environments. The staff at Anjou Spa & Salon in green-conscious Oregon makes sure its guests know about Anjou’s commitment to the cause. “When we redid the salon side of our business, we posted a message on Facebook asking clients if they knew what VOCs were because we were about to paint the salon in VOC-free paint,” says Kelley. “Surprisingly, a lot of people did know—and were glad we were using them!”

If your clients aren’t VOC-aware, tending to this potential health threat will give you the opportunity to enlighten them. “I hate to jump on trends,” says Kelley, “but we feel that making the effort to educate the population about VOCs and sustainability is worth it if it means we’re making a difference in people’s well-being.”

SIDEBAR: Indoor VOC Sources

• Air cleaners that produce ozone
• Air fresheners
• Carpets and their adhesives
• Cigarette smoke
• Cleaning and disinfecting chemicals
• Composite wood products
• Cosmetics
• Moth balls
• Paints
• Photocopiers
• Sealing caulks
• Solvents
• Stored paints and chemicals
• Upholstery fabrics
• Varnishes
• Vinyl floors

SIDEBAR: Learn More

To find out more about VOCs and VOC-free products, check out the following resources.

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Eco Logo
Greenguard Environmental Institute
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. Green Building Council
The Smart Mama

Liz Barrett is a freelance journalist based in Oxford, Mississippi.

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