After months of being cooped up at home, many of us are dreaming of a long-overdue visit to the nail salon. But once it’s deemed that you can get a mani-pedi without risk of contracting coronavirus, another question remains: are you exposing yourself to other health risks by getting your nails done?
After all, nail salons are full of harsh chemicals, and so are many nail products, so even doing your nails at home doesn’t necessarily eliminate risk. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with our non-toxic nail guide. Read on to learn the risks of nail salons and conventional nail products, what to look for when buying healthy nail polish, and our recommendations for the best non-toxic nail polish brands.
Are Nail Salons Safe?
So coronavirus aside, are nail salons safe? In general, no. The products used in most nail salons are often quite toxic, and getting a manicure or pedicure presents multiple different ways for those products to enter your body. First, there are your nails, which are living, breathing things that absorb chemicals just like any other organ. Then there’s your skin, the body’s biggest organ. Lastly, there are all the chemicals floating around in the air, which pass into your lungs via inhalation.
We’re not just talking about the nail polish itself — take a moment to think about all the other products a manicurist or pedicurist will use in a single session. From polish remover to scrubs to lotions to oils and many more, we’re talking about a lot of things going onto your body. What’s more, most of these products come in nondescript bottles, and the lotions are usually sea green or baby pink…what did they have to add in there to make them that color?!
Nail salons have low margins, so it makes sense that they would have to buy the cheapest product in bulk. And as we have sadly begun to realize, inexplicably cheap products are often those shown to be most harmful to your long-term health.
In 2015, The New York Times did a big exposé on the dangers of working in a nail salon, which brought to light a great deal of scary truths, many of which have to do with the health risks of nail salons. They pointed to a growing body of research tying the products used in nail salons with serious health risks, beyond the widely acknowledged respiratory and skin ailments that salon workers are known to disproportionately suffer from (one study showed that 20% of manicurists had a cough most days and nights).
These health issues include reproductive issues such as miscarriage, abnormal fetal development, and other harm to the reproductive system. Studies have shown that cosmetologists have increased risk of giving birth to a premature or low birth-weight baby, while other research has associated the products used in nail salons with elevated rates of death from various cancers, including Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma (a cancer of the plasma cells).
So what is causing all these health issues? To put it bluntly: lots of chemicals. There are dozens of common toxic chemicals in conventional nail products, but some are more concerning than others. These are the 3 main culprits:
- Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP): Used to make nail polish and other products pliable. It may cause reproductive harm and is banned in Australia and the EU for cosmetic use.
- Toluene: Used to make nail polish glide on more smoothly. It can impair kidney and cognitive function, cause liver damage, and adversely affect a developing fetus.
- Formaldehyde: Yes, the stuff used for embalming a body, which is also a known carcinogen and banned for cosmetic use in the EU.
For a comprehensive list of the toxic chemicals used in nail salons, check out this resource from OSHA, which outlines the most common toxins and the health risks of each.
The people most adversely affected by these chemicals are the cosmetologists and others who work in nail salons, handling and inhaling harmful chemicals all day long (which is why we should all do our part as conscientious citizens and push for reform to protect these workers!). But at the same time, you shouldn’t feel okay about exposing yourself “just a little” to potentially lethal chemicals so that you can get your nails done. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you need to forego mani-pedis — it just means you need to take some precautions. Let’s get into how you can make your experience safer.
How to Reduce Your Risk at Nail Salons
At WellBe, we consider manicures and pedicures monthly indulgences that we can’t wait to get back to and consider a major treat (especially those foot and shoulder massages…). Still, we know that a visit to the salon can be potentially hazardous to our health. This conundrum inspired Adrienne to develop a set of best practices and put together a non-toxic nail kit (which includes healthy nail polish) that protects her health when she heads to the salon. Here’s the rundown:
First, never get your cuticles cut. Reducing the risk of bleeding means reducing the risk of getting a nasty infection that might require an antiseptic or even an antibiotic (we try to avoid taking antibiotics at all costs!).
Second, wear a mask! Now that we’re in the time of coronavirus, it’ll seem all the more normal to wear a mask to the salon, or just throw it in your bag and put it on when you get inside. If you happen to be in possession of a P95 or N95 mask, these masks filter out the harmful chemical particulates before they enter your nose or mouth. You’ll likely notice a lot of the nail technicians are also wearing masks to protect themselves so it won’t seem that strange. If you’re pregnant or may become pregnant, this is especially important to do.
Third, put together a nail salon kit that includes healthy nail polish and other non-toxic items. You may need to include tools all well as products in your kit, but this depends on how your favorite salon sterilizes their equipment. If they use an autoclave, a special sterilization device that uses heat and high pressure to kill bacteria, then you can trust that the tools are clean. If they use disinfecting solution (the blue stuff at a barbershop) or UV light sterilizer boxes, then there’s a chance the tools aren’t being fully cleaned, so you’ll want to bring your own.
Bring your kit to the salon and explain each item to the pedicurist when you sit down. Will you get side-eye from the woman next to you over the top of her Us Weekly? Maybe. Will you ever have a staff member who doesn’t quite get it and is annoyed that you’re changing up the routine? Sure. But just smile, ask them to give your products a try, sit back, and relax knowing the color sliding onto your nails is from a safe nail polish.
Plus, once you start bringing your nail kit regularly, most of the salon staff and regulars won’t even notice. You might even inspire someone else to seek out their own non-toxic products and healthy nail polish!
The Best Non-Toxic Nail Polish Brands
It’s simple: If you want a safe manicure or pedicure, you need to use safe nail polish. But unfortunately, finding truly non-toxic nail polish brands is a bit more complicated than it seems. First of all, there’s basically no regulation around nail polish and other beauty products: due to powerful lobbyists, cosmetics safety is regulated by a law that’s 75 years old and doesn’t require companies to share safety information with the FDA.
Then there’s the fact that “greenwashing” has made it impossible to trust marketing. When looking for safe nail polish, you’ll commonly see brands advertising healthy nail polish as being “3-free” or “5-free.” The former means that it doesn’t contain the three toxic chemicals listed above (DBP, toluene, formaldehyde), while the latter means it doesn’t contain those three chemicals plus formaldehyde resin and camphor. But here’s the problem: studies have found that many of the “healthy” nail polish brands that tout themselves as 3-free or 5-free actually contain one or more of those very chemicals.
Yikes. This sort of confusing and misleading marketing is exactly the reason that we created the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Lists database, which contains 1,200+ completely vetted and researched products from trusted third-party rating organizations. There are tons of healthy nail polish options plus other nail products (as well as products in various other categories, including food, makeup, natural medicine, and many more).
Besides healthy nail polish, other products you may want to include in your non-toxic nail kit include:
- Nail polish remover
- Hand, foot, and body lotion
- Foot scrub
For a full list of our non-toxic nail kit recommendations, including our favorite picks for healthy nail polish and fully vetted options for all the items you’ll need in your nail kit, get access to the Non-Toxic Product Lists database:
Finding Non-Toxic Nail Salons
While most nail salons across the country use conventional (aka toxic) nail products, there are some hopeful signs that things are changing. As the wellness movement continues to grow, more salons are implementing practices that protect the health of both their workers and their clients.
Here are a few nail salons in major cities where you can trust that both the practices and products are safe, and you can leave your healthy nail polish kit at home:
Sundays Studio, New York City
Sundays was founded by Amy Ling Lin after she owned a chain of conventional nail salons and grew appalled at the lack of transparency around ingredients in certain products — and then even more appalled when she did her own research and discovered what was inside the nail polishes she’d been using.
So she spent a year formulating a line of non-toxic, cruelty-free, vegan nail polish that is not just 5-free, but 9-free: they don’t contain the 5 ingredients mentioned above, as well as xylene, ethyl tosylamide, parabens, and tert-butyl hydroperoxide. She opened Sundays with the hope of making the nail salon experience better for both clients and employees and raising the bar on nail salons everywhere. We actually interviewed Lin about her values and practices in the salon — watch here:
MiniLuxe has its own line of 5-free products, including nail polish, cuticle oils, lotions, and scrubs. They also prioritize good business practices and their salon workers, providing them with benefits, salaries, and on-going education.
When Tran Willis was pregnant, she went to a salon to get a pedicure, and immediately became nauseous and got a nosebleed. That experience inspired her to found Base Coat, a chain of salons with healthy practices and its own line of nail polish that is 8-free (free of all the chemicals listed for Sundays’ nail polish except for parabens). There’s even a juice bar on site!
Recognized as a Healthy Nail Salon by the city of San Francisco, Lux uses medically sterilized and/or single-use tools, as well as acetone-free nail polish remover, and lotions and scrubs that are free of sulfates, parabens, and phthalates. Plus, they use only non-toxic nail polish brands that are free of 7 to 10 of the most harmful chemicals.
Did you know that we have a similar guide to non-toxic hair salons? Check it out here.
Conclusion: What to Remember About Healthy Nail Polish and Nail Salons
Manicures and pedicures are a treat that many of us love. However, it’s important to balance this lovely indulgence with its effects on your health. Here’s what to remember:
- Chemicals used in nail salons have been associated with tons of health risks, including reproductive and fetal issues, cancer, respiratory and skin ailments, and damage to organs like the kidney and liver.
- You can protect yourself at the salon by implementing a few best practices, such as never getting your cuticles cut and bringing your own non-toxic nail kit to the salon with you.
- Be careful when looking for healthy nail polish: many brands incorrectly market themselves as being free of chemicals that they actually do contain. Instead, only buy non-toxic nail polish brands that come recommended from trusted sources, like the ones you’ll find on our Non-Toxic Product Lists database.
- Non-toxic salons still aren’t the norm, but they’re becoming more common. Try to find and support non-toxic, organic nail salons near you!
Do you have any favorite non-toxic nail products? Share them with us in the comments below!
- Mendelsohn, E. et al. Nail polish as a source of exposure to triphenyl phosphate. Environment International. Volume 86, January 2016, Pages 45-51.
- Kreiss, K. et al. Risk Factors for Asthma Among Cosmetology Professionals in Colorado. J Occup Environ Med. 2006 Oct;48(10):1062-9.
- Lin S. et al. The Risk of Having a Low Birth Weight or Preterm Infant among Cosmetologists in New York State. Maternal and Child Health Journal 13(1):90-7 · March 2008.