There’s something about having our nails done that just makes us feel better about life, amiright? Stealing peeps at our perfectly-polished digits as they tap on a keyboard, scroll on a smartphone, or make an excellent point in a meeting just gives us all the feels. It’s a mindset. But, depending on the products used, there can be a whole host of unpleasant chemicals lurking in our glossy mani/pedis that may have the potential to affect our health, and the health of our nail technicians too. Thankfully though, much like the wider beauty industry, an array of “cleaner” products are making their way into the market, offering us safer, less toxic options.
“As science advances, we’re learning more and more about cosmetic ingredients in general,” Katarina Stetz, a formulator and founder of natural beauty brand Ninni, explained. “As a result of this, many companies are moving away from potentially toxic ingredients and replacing them with ones found to be safer and as effective.”
Previously targeted largely to expectant or nursing mothers, non-toxic polishes are now being marketed to the wider population as the “clean beauty” movement really builds momentum. Starting at three-free all the way up to 10-free, the numbering system refers to the number of chemicals they’re free from, with 10 being considered the “cleanest” due to all the ingredients it cuts out. “If you think about it this way, just like checking the ingredients in your food, it’s important to understand what these products actually are free from and why, so you recognize what you’re avoiding,” Stetz added.
The Nail Baddies
There are three key ingredients from which the majority of polish products claiming to be “non-toxic” will be free of, Jenny Duranski, founder of Lena Rose, Chicago’s first green beauty salon and spa, said. “These are formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). They’re known carcinogens and endocrine (hormone) disruptors,” Duranksi explained. “Also, triphenyl phosphate or TPHP — this is the replacement chemical for DBP and an independent study by the Environmental Working Group in 2015 found it to be just as toxic as DBP — discovering it in women’s urine within 48 hours of a pedicure.”
DBP is on the EU’s (European Union) list of prohibited ingredients in cosmetic use as it may cause harm to unborn children, according to Stetz. “Considering it’s banned in Europe, this is an ingredient worth looking out for and avoiding if you’re buying polish in other markets — the U.S. included,” she noted.
Getting something of a bad rap in the past for chipping quickly and not offering much in the way of options compared their more chemical-laden cousins, “non-toxic nail polish has come a long way,” Duranski said. “At the beginning, it was hard to compete against conventional nail brands for staying power and also color selection. But now there are so many clean brands on the market, you can find lots of free-from options that work really well. It’s also worth noting that the staying power of any brand is affected by how you prep the nail plate. Always make sure to remove all oils, lightly buff and wipe clean, then apply a base and top coat to make a cleaner formula really last.”
And, it’s not just the polish that’s worth considering when deciding to try to go “cleaner” with your mani/pedi.
“So many other products go into a nail service,” Duranski said. “It’s usually about 7 to 10 different products from cuticle softener to a foot scrub to lotions to base/top coat. A ‘clean’ nail service has to be exactly that in all respects. A lot of traditional salons use heavily fragranced and preservative/filler-laden product lines. This is something also to question when you’re looking for the full experience.”
Many non-toxic polishes used by salons are part of a wider range of complementary manicure products — including removers, top and base coats, cuticle softeners, oils, and hand lotions. If you’re concerned about the products your salon is using, check with them and look into the products they use. If it’s a truly ‘green’ salon they should be following through with all clean products. But if not, you can always bring your own products in for them to use too.
Can Gel Polishes Be Non-Toxic Too?
From acetone soaks to UV lights, not to mention dipping powders and gel polishes, our overall nail and bodily health can pay a hefty price to have that long-lasting mani we all crave so much.
“This is the great thing now, there are cleaner options out there that have the same longevity — and I would even challenge longer wear time,” Duranksi said. “We use a brand from Toronto, Canada called Bio Seaweed Gel and our clients get three weeks chip-free out of it. And think about the soak-off process — the acetone isn’t good for the indoor air quality or your health. We use a steamer machine that you put your hands into, which dissolves the gel and also traps vapors. It’s a unique process that minimizes damage to your nails and everyone’s lungs.”
Nailing Down The Right Polish
When it comes to picking your polish, products, and salon, it’s well worth putting in the research. For polishes, look for brands that are marketing to things you care about — such as sustainability, performance, ingredients, and fashion-forward palettes. For salons, look at all the products and processes they use, not just the polishes. Most non-toxic brands will be shouting about the ingredients they’re using and share information on their social media accounts and websites.
“For me, I care about sustainable packaging, ingredients, and whether the brand is independently, woman-owned,” said Duranski. “It’ll take some IG research, but once you figure out a few brands you want to try, purchase their base and top coat along with a color, and test it out. If you feel it’s not working for you, or living up to its claims, let the brand know.”
The ‘Free-From’ List (And The Science-Bit)
We’ve already shared the top three nasties that all free-froms avoid, but as you move up the scale, more and more ingredients are knocked off the list, Stetz explained.
Five-free polishes: These are created without formaldehyde, toluene, and DBP, plus camphor and formaldehyde resin.
“Camphor is actually a natural ingredient that comes from the wood of the camphor laurel tree. It’s highly toxic if ingested,” Stetz added. “Formaldehyde resin is considered safe by the FDA, but it can cause allergic reactions.”
Seven-free polishes: These are formulated without all of the above, along with xylene and triphenyl phosphate.
“Typically, xylene has been used in the past to replace toluene — and similarly, xylene can affect and damage the central nervous system if inhaled in high amounts. It can cause dizziness, drowsiness and headaches,” Stetz said. Triphenyl phosphate is thought to be a hormone disrupter but there’s still research being done here, she added.
Eight-free polishes: These are free from all of those mentioned, plus ethyl tosylamide.
“Ethyl tosylamide is plasticizer that helps the nail polish create a durable film on the nail. It can be an irritant to the skin,” Stetz said. “Also, there’s a concern that it’s toxic for our environment and is bioaccumulative — that is, it stays in our ecosystem and never breaks down.”
Nine-free polishes are free from the above and parabens and/or acetone, while most 10-frees don’t use any harmful additives or animal byproducts, so the products are considered vegan.
With the beauty industry in the U.S. still being largely very under-regulated, it falls on us as consumers to make the right decisions for ourselves and our health, Duranski explained. As a former nail technician herself who became very unwell after working in a conventional salon, Duranski made it her mission to work in clean beauty, sourcing and testing out only natural products for her salon. But that’s not to say we have to totally overhaul our beauty bags overnight — awareness is key. Although these mani/pedis are cheap, long-lasting, and let’s face it, attractive, in the long-run it’s better to be mindful and considered about all the products you use on a regular basis and make informed choices.