Many health-conscious women have spent years painting their nails every hue under the sun, not really worrying about what goes into those gorgeous colors. But if there’s one thing that was made abundantly clear at Well+Good’s Natural Beauty Disruptors panel at the Indie Beauty Expo last month, it’s that nail polish is one of the most problematic beauty products out there. There’s basically no regulation, both ingredient-wise and in terms of salon conditions.
“The nail category is lagging behind skin care,” warns Nadine Abramcyk, co-founder of the uber-chic, uber-clean nail salon Tenoverten, which has outposts in New York City, Austin, and a soon-to-be-open location in Los Angeles.
The good news is that so many big nail polish brands are now 5-free—meaning they lack formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, formaldehyde resin, and camphor—and that’s a start. But there’s a lot more that goes into making sure your next manicure is truly clean and ethical.
Keep reading for five surprising (and scary) things you may not know about the nail industry—but should.
1. Regulation in nail salons still varies a lot
Before starting Tenoverten, Abramcyk and her co-founder, Adair Ilyinsky, worked in fashion and finance respectively. Being newbies to the biz, they tried to study up on all the regulations…and basically found none. “It’s pretty scary,” Abramcyk admits.
Thankfully, The New York Times’ monumental article on the appalling conditions in many nail salons really shook up the industry and upped governmental oversight, but not every salon has been (or can be) inspected, so it’s up to consumers to pay attention. When you go to a nail salon, make sure the technicians are wearing masks and wearing gloves for at least a portion of the service—a sign they’re actually abiding by the regulations, Abramcyk says. And definitely expect to pay at least $30 for a manicure, which means employees are being compensated fairly.
2. Labels like “3-free” aren’t necessarily closely watched
First, the good news: Almost all nail polishes are at least 3-free nowadays, which generally means they’re free of formaldehyde (an ingredient that has been tied to cancer), DBP, and toulene. “But you have to be careful, because that’s not closely regulated,” says Abramcyk. “Not everybody is using the same ingredients when they’re referring to what they’re free of.” In other words, to be sure your polish actually is what it claims to be, you need to carefully read the label yourself.
3. Neon colors are never all-natural
As far as Abramcyk knows, it’s impossible to make a neon nail polish without using traces of formaldehyde resin (a skin allergen), which explains why clean, 5-free nail polish lines tend not to include super-bright hues. Sure, that’s bad news if you love fluorescent lime greens and pinks, but there are so many other bold colors and sophisticated neutrals to check out that you won’t be left feeling bare.
4. Most base coats also have formaldehyde
If you’re not paying attention to your base coat, you’re overlooking a huge part of the clean manicure/pedicure puzzle. “Typically, you go to a nail salon and just use whatever base coat they have on the table. You think that because you’re using a 5-free polish, it’s okay—but who knows what’s in that base coat?” Abramcyk says. “The strengthening aspect of it, which adheres the color to your nails, is made out of formaldehyde.” So do your research, or bring your own natural base coat.
5. There’s no such thing as organic nail polish
Organic standards simply don’t exist for nail polish, says Abramcyk, so if a line bills itself as “organic,” it’s green-washed marketing and you should be skeptical. There are, of course, plenty of great non-toxic options out there, but if all of this is making you totally rethink your polish routine, perhaps it’s time to opt for a nice clean buff? Less is more, after all.