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Shiny, Colorful Nails — Safely

By on June 27th, 2012 Categories: Uncategorized

Getting a manicure or pedicure is one of the only times that I get to sit still and enjoy a little time to myself. Plus, that nice pampered feeling that comes with freshly shaped and polished nails is ahhh so nice.

But I do have concerns about the possible dangers of the fumes that hit you as soon as you walk into a salon. As it turns out, nail salons are not required to list ingredients on labels unless the product is available for purchase. Also, it’s not just the fumes that I have to worry about. Cosmetics and nail products do not have to undergo clinical trials before being sold on the market. So what goes into manicures and pedicures can be quite undefined and mysterious. It’s pretty clear, though, that nail polish colors like Lincoln Park after Dark, Pink-a-Boo, and Aquadelic don’t come straight from nature!

Traditional nail polish

Conventional nail polish is largely made of chemical solvents that evaporate into the air, causing those distinctive salon fumes. Inhaling the fumes can be unhealthy. The chemicals can also pose a danger if they are absorbed through the skin, such as when they dissolve out of polish when you wash your hands. For many years, polish usually included three ingredients known to be toxic:

  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which adds flexibility to polish, is a toxin linked to feminizing effects in baby boys through breast milk, decreased sperm count, and other developmental and reproductive problems.
  • Toluene, which helps stabilize nail polish color and creates a smooth finish, has toxic effects on the brain and spinal cord, and as a result it can cause headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.
  • Formaldehyde, which serves as a nail hardener, is known to be a cancer-causing substance as well as a skin irritant.

Since consumer advocacy campaigns targeted this “toxic three” in 2006, many major companies have excluded these chemicals from their products. OPI, Essie, Nail Tek, Orly, Sally Hansen, and Milani — among others — now advertise that their nail polishes are DBP-, toluene-, and formaldehyde-free. Some newer brands, including Priti and Karma, have never contained these ingredients.

But older products may still be on the market, particularly at discount stores. So be sure to only purchase polish that is specifically labeled as free of the toxic three. (In particular, check the label on any OPI nail hardener: The company says that it currently sells some versions that contain formaldehyde while others are clearly marked “formaldehyde-free formula.”)

Older products may still be in use at salons, too. Always ask your nail technician to use only products that are DBP-, toluene-, and formaldehyde-free. Better yet, bring your own nail polish: When the California Department of Toxic Substances Control tested a random sampling of 25 polishes from nail salons in 2011, they found that five of seven products claiming to be free of these three chemicals included at least one in significant levels. Most of the mislabeled products were brands available only at salons, not in retail stores.

Water-based nail polish

Alternatively, consider using water-based nail polishes. These polishes contain water in place of all of the chemical solvents found in conventional nail polish — not just the ones known to be toxic. Water-based polishes are advertised as nonflammable, and because they contain no solvents, they don’t give off the typical nail polish fumes.

Users have noted that water-based polish is more sheer than traditional polish, so three coats are usually needed. The polish does not appear to be as durable, either, although allowing the polish plenty of time to dry before exposing nails to water seems to help.

Water-based polishes are rarely available at salons, so if this is your choice, you will probably need to bring your own bottle. (Brands such as Suncoat and Aquarella are easy to purchase online.)

Artificial nail application

Artificial nail application is a popular service provided by nail salons, whether to strengthen nails or add length. Besides acrylics, there are now some newer alternatives.

  • Acrylic nails: Made with a liquid acrylic compound called ethyl methacrylate (EMA), acrylics are considered safe if applied carefully to avoid skin contact. Redness and swelling can occur if the product comes in contact with the skin around the nails.EMA replaced methyl methacrylate (MMA) in acrylic nails after MMA was removed from the market in 1974. MMA was taken off-market due to risks including serious allergic reactions, nail infections, permanent nail deformities, and respiratory problems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advises that salons should not use products with MMA. Even so, some MMA is still in use because no regulation specifically prohibits its use in cosmetic products.If you can, ask your nail technician whether the salon still uses MMA. More importantly, be alert to tell-tale signs. MMA gives off an unusually powerful and noxious odor. Also, be suspicious of very low-priced full-sets and fills, since MMA is significantly cheaper than EMA.
  • Gel nails, made with a gel resin and pigment, are less durable than acrylics, but they may be preferable because they don’t contain solvents. They also stay shiny and unchipped for significantly longer than a basic manicure.A nail technician paints layers of a thin, gel-like coating onto nails to create a flexible nail covering. Nails feel dry and smooth once hardened under a UV lamp. Like mini tanning beds, UV lamps emit rays that can harm the skin. Up to 10 minutes of exposure is required when gel nails are first applied and again whenever gaps are filled as the nails grow out. This repeat exposure over time can have a negative, unhealthy aging effect on the skin. UV lamps are associated with a higher risk of skin cancer and earlier signs of aging.Removing both gel nails, as well as acrylics, requires a soak in acetone after first filing off the top layer (to make acetone soak in faster).
  • Shellac nails, yet another option now available at many nail salons, are similar to gel nails but require a shorter-term commitment. This gel-polish hybrid is applied like polish and cured under a UV light like gels. It lasts up to 2 weeks and is easier to remove than acrylics or gels — requiring a soak in acetone but no filing.While the chemical risk from shellac, as well as gel, formulations may be quite low, the harms posed by repeated UV exposure should not be underestimated.
  • Minx nails offer a way to avoid many of the undesirable side effects of nail application. Available at many nail salons today, Minx are like stickers for the nails. After you select from an array of patterns or colors, a nail technician heats the flexible adhesive polymer and then presses it onto your dry nails, trimming each one to fit. There is no drying time, and the product is odorless. Minx nails last 1 to 2 weeks. They can be removed by heating the nails with a hair dryer and then peeling them off. Be aware that there isn’t any product safety information available for Minx nails, so no one really knows if any chemicals are released when the polymer is heated.


Nail salons typically remove nail polish and artificial nails by soaking nails with acetone, ethyl acetate (a sweetish smelling “non-acetone”), or acetonitrile. None of these three removers are considered safe for use:

  • Acetone and ethyl acetate are the most commonly used removers. Both can be toxic to the nervous system, causing headaches and dizziness if inhaled. They can also irritate the skin and dry the nails. Acetone works more quickly, while non-acetone products tend to be gentler on the cuticle.
  • Acetonitrile is sometimes used to remove acrylic nails. This solvent is particularly effective for removing glue. Although commonly used in the United States, it’s been banned in cosmetic products in Europe since 2000 due to the potential risk for poisoning if ingested or if vapors are inhaled and because it may be carcinogenic. Acetone and ethyl acetate are considered safer.

Alternative nail polish removers are now available that contain no acetone, ethyl acetate, or other harsh solvents. These are preferable to traditional removers because they have fewer fumes.

If you can’t find them in stores, alternative polish removers can be ordered online. Some, such as Priti Soy Nail Polish Remover, Suncoat Natural Nail Polish Remover, and No Miss Almost Natural Vegan Polish Remover, claim to remove conventional nail polish. Others, such as Aquarella polish remover, are designed to remove water-based nail polish only. None may be very effective for removing acrylics or gels.

Alternative removers are not used at most salons. But you can take your own with you when you visit a salon; just ask your nail technician to use it instead of the conventional polish remover.

Cuticle and nail treatments

As part of a manicure or pedicure, salons also often use treatments to condition the cuticles and strengthen the nails. Cuticle and nail treatments may contain creams and scrubs made with natural oils and vitamin E, but you should be aware that even some so-called “natural” brands may contain extra unwanted ingredients such as fragrance, oxybenzone, or other chemical UV-screens, parabens, and triclosan — an anti-fungal and anti-microbial chemical. Make sure to read the ingredients lists.

Ways to make your manicure and pedicure safer

Be sure that the salon that you visit is well-established and has a good reputation: Ask your friends for recommendations and search for information online. When you visit for the first time, look for the salon’s operating license, which should be displayed in a prominent location. Most states also require that each manicurist have an individual license in full view.

The salon should be clean and well-ventilated. Technicians should wash their hands before working on a client, and all tools should be properly sterilized between uses. Technicians shouldn’t cut or overstress the skin around the nails. Most of all, they should listen and respond to any concerns that you have. If something seems off, trust your instincts and leave if you aren’t comfortable.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates nail products for both home and salon and considers nail salon services safe as long as they are administered carefully by trained and licensed nail technicians. The agency has stated that while many nail products “contain potentially harmful ingredients,” they are allowed on the market “because they are safe when used as directed.” It’s really up to you to make sure that they are.

Here are some options for reducing risks from salon services:

  • If you’ve had surgery for breast cancer that includes lymph node removal, you’ll want to take steps to lower the risk of developing lymphedema — a painful and sometimes permanent condition involving swelling of the arm or other area of the body. Risks for lymphedema include cuts or infections in the skin near the site of lymph node removal. Work with a manicurist who knows your health history and avoids cutting and overstressing the skin around your nails. If you’re considering a certain nail salon, ask around to find out if there have ever been reports of unsanitary practices or if clients have experienced bacterial, fungal, or viral infections. Artificial nails can also become infection sites if not fitted and maintained properly.Bring your own nail polish and polish remover so that you can control what products are being used.
  • Bring your own tools — nail clippers, emery boards, cuticle remover — to reduce the risk of infection. If you get acrylic nails, consider wearing a mask to avoid inhaling chemical fumes.
  • Your nails can also look great without any polish at all. Instead of having your nails painted, ask the technician to buff them. This gives nails a beautiful, clean shine without the fuss of waiting for polish to dry and without any other downsides of nail polish.
  • If you’re getting a service that requires use of a UV lamp, apply mineral sunscreen to block the UV from the surrounding skin on the hands. Otherwise, avoid using the UV lamps. Sometimes technicians use them unnecessarily, such as to speed up drying time for traditional manicures and pedicures. While the exposure may not be significant, it is safest to avoid the harmful rays.
  • Keep an eye out for salons that focus on providing more eco-friendly services. I’ve even noticed that cities now have salons offering vegan manicures and pedicures. It’s not clear exactly what this means, but these might be worth looking into!

While it may not be possible to have a manicure or a pedicure without any questionable chemicals at all, if you follow the above suggestions, you can reduce your chemical exposure.

Do you have other suggestions for making a nail salon visit safer? Have you tried alternative nail polish products or visited an eco-friendly salon? Let us know. We’d like to hear your salon stories, too!

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.


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