How To Be Smart & Safe When It Comes To Nail Polish

Everyone is abuzz about nail salons since the New York Times published its two-part series chronicling the many atrocities taking place right under our toes at salons across the city (and presumably in other parts of the country too).

The first article documents the abominable and oft-illegal conditions and pay, while the second looks at the nightmarish side effects chemicals appear to be having on workers who are exposed to them every day. (I say appear, because causal studies on this stuff are extremely tough to conduct.)

If you missed the series, check it out for yourself. But here are a few grizzly outtakes:

  • The Times spoke to workers who were not only not paid for months during their supposed training period, but were actually charged a $100 fee to start working in salons.
  • When they did start getting paid, it was only to make $30 a day for a 10-12 hour shift.
  • While research has been limited, anecdotal evidence suggests elevated risks of miscarriage, learning disabilities in children, some cancers, coughs that never go away and strange skin afflictions. Some women they spoke to had had upwards of five miscarriages.
  • Of the 20 most common ingredients in nail polish, 17 have been found to be hazardous to the respiratory tract.
  • One worker they spoke to was barely able to have her fingerprints taken (it took seven tries) due to the damage incurred from chemicals.

So what’s a mani-pedi loving girl with a conscience to do? It’s not an easy topic, but here are three options, starting with the most hardcore.

1. Stop going to salons and do a DIY buff.

I converted to buffing when Siobhan and I first started researching No More Dirty Looks, and I still love it.

It’s low maintenance (no chipping!), it still looks pretty and clean, and it’s said to be good for nail health because it increases circulation to the area. As a child of the 80s, I also have an abiding love of long nails, but think they look best with clear polish or a nice shiny buff. You can buy a buffer at the drugstore and just follow the easy instructions.

2. Support the cleaner (and more expensive) salons.

Green and clean eco salons have been popping up in cities across the country. Are they perfect? No. The truth is even the more natural nail polishes contain some pretty gnarly chemicals.

But a good, clean salon will have great ventilation, and use natural removers and moisturizers. Your nose will know the second you walk in whether a place is clean — and you can bet the workers feel the difference. They're also usually more expensive than your standard $20 manicure-pedicure combo, but that’s kind of the point here.

3. Go to your favorite salon, but bring your own stuff (and talk to the staff).

Have a salon in your neighborhood that you go to and really don’t want to give up the ritual? Then take the time to chat with some of the women working there.

If you’re paying $10 for a manicure, chances are they’re not being paid a legal wage. But if you feel like the work standards are solid, then you can always show up with your own basket of products: hand-cream, less toxic remover, a 3-free polish (or get a buff).

You might feel a little silly the first time, but you’ll be exposing yourself — and the manicurist — to fewer chemicals while also raising awareness at the business.

Do you go to nail salons? What’s your take on the topic?

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