Who doesn’t love a mani/pedi? It’s one of life’s affordable luxuries, and in Hong Kong, there’s certainly no shortage of nail salons on every street corner ready to file, buff and paint our fingers and toes to perfection. Unfortunately, the nail industry is also one of the most un-eco-friendly, unregulated and unethical, with nail salon workers forced to work long hours whilst inhaling a slew of pretty nasty chemicals with no recourse for protection. The New York Times did a fantastic expose on this very topic last year, it’s definitely worth a read. Thanks to the powerful force of investigative journalism, the nail industry is undergoing an overhaul worldwide.
But nail salon workers are not the only ones at risk. Most nail polishes contain a laundry list of unpronounceable chemical ingredients that are linked to a range of health issues and conditions. Since we tend to leave the polish on our nails for long periods of time, our nail beds absorb the chemicals and they then enter our blood stream. Nail polish chemicals are especially dangerous for children whose brains and bodies are still developing. While stronger polishes such as gel and acrylic nail preparations contain some of the strongest pollutants, among the worst offenders are Toluene, Formaldehyde and Dibutyl Phtalate (DBP), the toxic trio found in a majority of nail polish brands. There’s no such thing as totally clean nail polish. Nail polish is by definition a synthetic product. Anyone who claims they have an organic nail polish better be talking about homemade beetroot dye, because a non-agricultural synthetic input cannot, by definition, be derived from organic agriculture.
Non-Toxic Nail Lingo
3-Free = free of Toluene, Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Formaldehyde. Many popular salon brands like Essie and OPI are now 3-Free. 3-Free is no longer considered a big deal.
5-Free = free of Toluene, DBP, Formaldehyde, Camphor and Formaldehyde Resin. For most natural/eco brands, 5-Free is the minimum standard.
7-Free = free of Toluene, DBP, Formaldehyde, Camphor, Formaldehyde Resin, Triphenyl Phosphate (TPHP) and Xylene. Currently 7-Free is the gold standard in natural nails.
9-Free= free of Toluene, DBP, Formaldehyde, Camphor, Formaldehyde Resin, Xylene, Ethyl Tosylamide, Lead and Parabens. 9-Free is the best you can hope for when it comes to nails, though few brands adhere to this standard.
Here’s a lowdown on the three most worrying nail polish ingredients and why you should avoid them:
- Toluene is a water-insoluble benzene derivative and is a known neurotoxin, which means it adversely affects neuron cells in your brain and your nervous system. Added to nail polish to increase application smoothness, Toluene is used in paint thinners and gasoline as well as varnishes, lacquers and paint. Excess exposure to Toluene can cause nausea, dizziness, fatigue, confusion, birth defects and abnormalities, headaches, liver damage and kidney problems. Long-term exposure is associated with severe nervous system disorders. The European Union bans its use, though it is still allowed by the United States FDA.1
- Formaldehyde is a colorless gas often used in disinfectants and adhesives as well as to embalm bodies (!), is a common ingredient in nail hardeners. It is a known carcinogen (a potentially cancer causing substance), with studies connecting it to both nasal and lung cancers. When it is inhaled, side effects include headaches, watery eyes and burning throat.2
- Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP) is a solvent used to make plastics more flexible. In nail polishes, it serves to prevent cracks and chips. DBP affects our hormonal and reproductive systems and is linked to birth defects, early onset puberty, male genital abnormalities, higher rates of miscarriages and other pregnancy complications. DBP is also banned by the European Union.3
Where To Get Safe Mani-Pedis
Below is a shortlist of Green Queen approved nail salons in Hong Kong, all of which use safer (and more eco) nail polish brands. Further, many of these salons offer the polishes for purchase if you want to get your own set.
- Iyara Day Spa uses Couleur Caramel, a French vegan and 7-Free nail polish line that is also free of parabens, phenoxyethanol, PEG and GMOs; Multiple locations in Central, Mid-Levels and Wan Chai.
- Emmanuel F uses LVX, a US-based, vegan and 7-Free nail product brand for its regular nail services, as well as 5-Free Canadian & American Bio Seaweed Gel for its soft-gel option plus they will soon have US gel nail range NCLA Gelous, also vegan and 5-Free; U/G, The Pemberton, 22-26 Bonham Strand, Sheung Wan.
- Sparadise uses SpaRitual, a US-based, vegan and 5-Free nail brand & SpaRitual Gold (the brand’s soft-gel line) as well as Zoya, a vegan 5-Free US brand; 3 & 4/F, 60 Wellington Street, Central.
- Melomist uses YMCK for regular mani-pedis, a French 5-Free nail line as well as NCLA Gelous & Bio Seaweed Gel for its soft-gel options.
- A Beauty Bar uses Spa Ritual & Spa Ritual Gold; Multiple locations in Central, Causeway Bay, Sha Tin and Tsim Sha Tsui.
- 10/10 Space uses uslu airlines, a German 5-Free lacquer range; 1/F B, Fairview Mansion, 51 Patterson Street, Causeway Bay.
- The Right Spot uses NCLA for soft-gel as well as LVX and LA 7-free brand cote for regular mani/pedis.
- Nail Me Professional Nail Service uses ella + milla, which is US-based, vegan and 7-Free.; Multiple locations in Wan Chai, Tsim Sha Tsui & Mongkok.
- The Nail Library use French vegan and 5-Free Kure Bazaar polishes.
Where To Buy Safe Nail Polish Online
Some of us prefer to paint our own nails, but where to look for a safe nail polish brand with a sizable range of colors?
- For Your Nails: we love the French vegan 7-free brand Avril, available from online beauty store Biofa, and vegan 5-Free US brand Zoya (color selection is amazing), available from online store A Polish. Another good contender is US water-based brand Scotch Naturals, which they state is vegan, fragrance-free, gluten-free, parabens-free, toxin-free, hypoallergenic and biodegradable, available in Hong Kong from eco beauty platform Placebo Life. Placebo Life also stocks US brand Londontown Lakur, one of the 9-Free vegan brands on the market. One Vegan Shop also stocks German 7-Free brand Lacleur (email them as the products are not on the website). JINSoon is a vegan, 5-Free from the eponymous New York nail artist is available at Beyorg.
- For The Little Ones: Piggy Paint is a water-based, non-toxic nail polish brand formulated especially for the kiddos. You can shop the whole collection online here.
- For Safe Nail Polish Removers*: try the Karma Organic range available online here, which is soy Based, non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, free of any petroleum ingredients, and packaged in 100% recyclable glass bottles.
*Acetone, the main ingredient in most nail polish removers, should be avoided in large amounts as it can lead to seizures, loss of consciousness, kidney damage, respiratory distress and ultimately death. Less serious exposure can promote throat, lung, eye and nose irritation, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and abdominal pain. It has also been associated with the shortening of women’s menses’ cycles. Further, acetone is a skin irritant and can easily cause burns and rashes, as well as exacerbating skin conditions such as acne and eczema. Bottom line: avoid it at all costs.
So no excuses ladies: the next time your tootsies need an overhaul, make the safer, greener choice!
1, 2, 3 based on research from the Environmental Working Group’s Skindeep database.
An earlier version of this post was published in Playtimes Magazine print issue #1204.