5 Ways to Stylish Nails Without the Guilt

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Last week, the New York Times published an in depth investigative report on the state of the nail industry in New York. To sum it all up: things are bad. Workers are underpaid (when they are paid), living under inhumane conditions, and getting increasingly sicker from the fumes they inhale and chemicals they handle for upwards of 12 hours a day. Today, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered emergency measures to protect the thousands of salon workers. The Times reports that he’s launched “a new, multiagency task force” to investigate salons, uphold labor laws, and protect manicurists from the very many dangers they face.

Health risk for consumers with infrequent exposure is less clear. But anyone with a conscience is going to avoid nail salons until real changes are made. And yet, it’s ok to admit it, you love your mani pedi. So here are five safer ways to safe, stylish nails.  

• Grin and Bare It.
When was the last time you saw your bare nails? They can look good! Go naked and you won’t have to give the safety of polish another thought. This is an especially good choice if you’re pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant. Obviously your individual exposure level to the questionable chemicals in conventional polishes is lower than that of the person who does your nails, but if you are concerned about the fumes as well as the chemicals on your nail beds and skin, this is the safest route. You can still use creams and oils to care for your nails and cuticles.

• Get Buffed.
Buff instead of polish for a high gloss fume-free shine. Try it yourself at home to avoid any fumes, or head to a well ventilated salon for a professional sheen (you’ll still be inhaling fumes from other people’s manicures and pedicures). Some argue buffing isn’t great for your nails; it can remove layers and weaken them. So buff in moderation.  

• DIY.
Polish yourself with “better” polishes. Many brands have removed specific chemicals known to be reproductive toxicants and carcinogens from their products. These polishes are referred to as “3-free” (no dibutyl phthalate, toluene, or formaldehyde) and “5-free” (minus two more chemicals). But regulation of these claims is maddeningly non-existent. According to The New York Times, several studies (by the FDA and another by California’s EPA) found some products labeled 3- and/or 5-free still contained the bad stuff. So choose products carefully—including remover—and then polish outdoors, if you can. You may choose to do your nails only for special events.

• Stickers!
You know how you can get a sticker put on top of your nails kept in place by a clear top coat? Well that top coat isn’t necessary. You can stick all sorts of decals on with no added polish. There are even whole nail stickers in every shade and pattern that adhere with a little heat (as in your hair dryer). Yes, the stickers themselves are full of chemicals; the same class of chemicals (phthalates) that makes nail polish go on smooth also makes plastic flexible. They smell fume-y coming out of the package. But you’re not putting them on in an unventilated room where hundreds of other people are getting them done day in and day out.  

• Go to a Salon.
Maybe you’re really bad at doing your own nails . Or maybe you have a party to go to. Time to choose the best salon you can find. You want somewhere that is using the “better” 5- or 3-free polishes (and good news: a lot of places are!). You want somewhere that is actually well-ventilated. This means more than just opening the door every once in a while. And you want somewhere that isn’t going to give you a manicure for $10—a crazy low price tag can mean only bad things. Poke around. Salons often claim to be “organic” or “green” when they are anything but. Bonus points if the salon uses products to scrub, massage, and remove polish that are more natural than not. This also means a salon that isn’t offering gel manicures; in terms of fumes and chemical exposure, those are said to be the worst. Yes, you’re only in there for an hour at most, but the workers have to be there all day long. It’s a big leap to go from pretty nails to massage chair activist, but maybe the time has come.

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