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Should We Be More Conscious Of The Nail Products We Use?

Non-toxic is always the way to go

There’s something to be said about taking the time to get our nails done. It makes us feel put together—even if the rest of us isn't. It's one of those simple pleasures we can take part in that doesn’t burn a huge hole in our wallets, like a facial or massage, and even if we choose not to go to a salon, it’s something we can easily do ourselves. However, there are important things to keep in mind when it comes to nail care.

Much like you should be mindful of any product you put on your body, from your eyeshadow down to your body lotion, a lot of nail products can contain chemicals that pose potential health concerns and dangers. That’s where Sarah Simon, Ali Elman, and Tran Wills come into play. The three founded Base Coat, a nail polish and nail care line boasting two non-toxic salons located in Los Angeles and Denver, with more on the way. They stand by the notion that you deserve to pamper yourself in a healthy, non-toxic way.

The thing is, as we all know, being a conscientious consumer can be a little confusing. When you’re shopping for nail polish to use, you’re probably bombarded with a bunch of different claims: three-free, five-free, and even eight-free. But what does this all mean? Being that Base Coat's house brand of polish and nail care products is U.S.-made, vegan, eight-, gluten-, and cruelty-free, I reached out to them to get to the bottom of why we need to be more conscious of what we’re putting on our nails. 

“Decoding non-toxic nail polish lingo is fairly simple when you break it into a few tiers,” says Wills. “The first would be the elimination of the ‘big three’ toxins that are the most harmful: dibutyl phthalate [DBP], toluene, and formaldehyde.”

Polishes that are labeled three-free don’t include those three ingredients—which were once very common ingredients in your typical nail polish formula—and therefore prevent exposure to an extensive list of possible health complications.

Wills explains further:

DBP, a chemical used in industrial practices as an agent to make plastics flexible, has been marked dangerous by the EPA, as it can possibly cause harmful reproductive and developmental effects. Toluene—an agent also found in gasoline—is designated as hazardous waste by the EPA, with possible effects including headaches, dizziness, asthma, and reproductive health concerns. Rounding out the three-free tier is the omission of formaldehyde, a carcinogenic preservative and environmental pollutant linked to issues affecting mainly the brain and lungs of adults and children alike.

According to Wills, three-free polish has become pretty common as of late in almost all store-bought brands of nail polish, which can be comforting for us as consumers. Some easily available polishes are even labeled five-free. These not only omit the “big three,” but also remove camphor and formaldehyde resin from the mix, which are also linked to possible dangers—from allergic reactions to central nervous system damage and cancer.

Still, while opting for a five-free polish is a better and safer choice than three-free, there are still more ingredients that could be omitted from the formula.

“The subtraction of ingredients such as xylene, ethyl tosylamide, and parabens take non-toxic polish formulas to the next level of eight-free,” says Wills. According to her, these ingredients also have been linked to a number of health issues, from fertility problems to contact dermatitis. Therefore, opting for eight-free is really the safest you can get. 

“When it comes down to what you will or won’t put on your nails and the surrounding skin, we like to take a through and through non-toxic approach. Today, we have the ability to create a high-quality, long-lasting polish formulation that is free of hazardous ingredients,” says Wills. Why would anyone opt for anything else?

Of course, it’s not just polish that can be potentially harmful. According to Elman, the types of nail services and treatments that salons offer also present a number of potential dangers and damage. Acrylic, shellac, and gel polishes not only damage the nails but are known to contain toxic ingredients (at least in trace amounts) as well, while the UV lights used to set and dry certain treatments can have aging effects on the skin. For these reasons, you won’t see these services available at a Base Coat salon.

While Base Coat prides itself on providing their clients with a non-toxic and healthy environment at their two locations, in addition to their line of safe nail products, not all other salons follow these same measures. So, what should we keep in mind the next time we’re in dire need of a mani/pedi?

“Don’t be afraid to ask a salon questions,” says Elman. “Ask about what kind of nail polishes and products and being used on you, ask how they sanitize their tools, tables, and bowls.” There are a number of red flags you can look for, and if you see them, you should find a salon that follows better practices. “Is there proper ventilation? Are they properly cleaning their station in between each client? Are tools being stored in a proper clean container when the nail tech brings them out? Nothing porous should ever be reused—and some salons do so in order to save a buck.” 

Of course, if you’re looking to DIY, do your research. “Please be an informed consumer,” says Simon. “Most brands list information about chemicals and cruelty-free policies in their FAQs section. Ingredients will be listed so that you can make an educated decision as to which products are right for you.” You’ll obviously want to do your best to avoid any of the harmful ingredients listed earlier. Simon suggests using the website as a resource ingredient or brand research. 

Of course, Base Coat makes finding safe nail products easy, as the entirety of their enormous range of nail polish and care products are available to order on their website