When you go to the nail salon you expect to be pampered with freshly buffed and painted fingers and toes. What you don’t expect is to come into contact with toxic fumes or harmful chemicals that can wreak havoc on your health from the products used in the salon. Unfortunately, this may be the case in many salons across the country where safety practices aren’t enforced and product ingredients are poorly regulated.
Jenny Duranski, founder and CEO of Lena Rose Beauty, a green beauty boutique and spa in Chicago, dealt with the ramifications of these health hazards first hand. Before she founded her boutique, she worked as a certified nail technician for four years in a traditional salon but fell ill from the constant exposure of the toxic products she worked with. Eager to understand what was making her sick, she began to research on her own. The more she looked into the issues, the more she realized there weren’t nearly enough resources out there to help consumers and technicians understand the dangers and choose safer alternatives.
One of the first websites Jenny came across that helped her along her educational journey was the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Ever since, Jenny has been a supporter, traveling to Washington D.C. to share her personal story and lobby for tougher legislation on the beauty products industry. Jenny explains, “I’m a very passionate advocate and activist. When I started learning more about this I got really angry and really frustrated. Then I became hopeless and then I got my passion back again.” She knew she could and should change things and has been carrying the torch for green nails ever since.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, founded in 2014, works to educate the public and enact legislation to remove dangerous chemicals from personal care products. Over the years, they have persuaded many companies to ditch the harmful chemicals and bring the demand for natural and organic products to the mainstream market.
Her research and dedication to natural alternatives led her to open Chicago’s first non-toxic nail salon in 2013. In the years since, green beauty has had somewhat of a boom but as Jenny says, “The nail industry still has a very, very long way to go. For some reason, I think it’s going to be the last industry to change.” This reality has kept her laser-focused on her advocacy so that when her daughter is ready to get her first manicure, she won’t have to worry about harmful side effects.
Removing the Toxins
In 2006 the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics launched a campaign that was targeted at Essie and OPI, amongst other major brands, to remove the big toxic trio: toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate. They succeeded in getting these brands to reformulate their products to be 3-free. But over the past decade, new research has emerged leading to the need to further restrict ingredients. Jenny explains, “We have a lot more research on even more chemicals of concern in nail polish. So once they removed dibutyl phthalate from nail polish ingredients, they replaced it with a chemical called triphenyl phosphate because you need that drip in order to apply it.” In October of 2015 there was an independent study done by the Environmental Working Group. It found pregnant women who used nail polish with the endocrine disruptor triphenyl phosphate had it show up in their urine stream within 72 hours. “The replacement chemicals can also be just as dangerous as the original. This is why we need testing,” says Jenny.
Now, the standard is 5-free labeling, which means no formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, camphor, and formaldehyde resin. Jenny goes one step further and doesn’t use products containing triphenyl phosphate in her salon.
Understanding your exposure goes beyond these labels though. “I know a lot of consumers focus on the nail polish, but that’s not actually the most toxic part of a manicure and pedicure. The most toxic part really is the body products that are getting put on,” explains Jenny. She says that, as a consumer, you really need to make sure that what the salon is offering is really what they are using. It’s imperative to ask questions. A lot of the stuff in a nail kit isn’t labeled and some non-reputable salons may refill safe product bottles with unsafe, cheaper products.
Toxic Cheat Sheet
Formaldehyde: Used as a hardener and preservative, this toxic chemical has been classified as a human carcinogen (capable of causing cancer) by the National Toxicology Program and California EPA’s Proposition 65.
Formaldehyde resin: Used in nail enamel products, it is a known skin allergen that can cause dermatitis.
Dibutyl phthalate (DBP): This plasticizer acts as an endocrine disruptor, interfering with your hormonal system.
Toluene: Used to give nail polish a smooth finish, this toxic chemical can impair breathing and cause nausea. Exposure to toluene when pregnant can cause developmental issues for the fetus.
Camphor: With a thick scent derived from the wood of the camphor tree, this ingredient is particularly concerning for nail technicians who are constantly exposed to the dizzying and nausea-inducing fumes.
Tips for Safer Nail Care
- If you truly want a non-toxic experience, Jenny suggests that you skip the polish.
- She also encourages customers to be their own advocates. “It’s important to ask questions and not be shy about it. Bring your own stuff if you are concerned—even educate them. A lot of the nail technicians don’t know their own risks and don’t know that the products they’re using are affecting their own female health.”
- Look at the products a salon carries. It can be a good indication as to how much they care about safety and green beauty.
- Visit the websites of the green and vegan nail products you trust to see which salons near you carry their products.
- Pay attention to price. Jenny says, “If you are paying $35 for a mani-pedi, that’s a pretty good indicator as well that they’re using cheap products. They won’t have that profit margin to be able to invest in a better product line.”
- If you head to a traditional nail salon and want to avoid poor air quality, make sure you have the first appointment in the morning. She also suggests you plan your visits on Mondays and Tuesdays when salons are generally less busy.