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Navigating Nail Care: A Guide to the Cleaner + Toxic Options

In the late 1980s, chemist Vivian Valenty was hired to develop a nail polish topcoat that would quickly dry when exposed to UVA light — the lights you dry your fingers and toes under at the end of a nail salon visit. It was known that UVB light causes sunburn and could be potentially harmful to skin, so the industry had turned to UVA as a safer alternative. After over 300 experiments, Valenty successfully developed the perfect formula and decided to continue her work in the nail care industry.

Then, in 1997, the FDA put out a statement saying that research had revealed that UVA light was even more harmful than UVB, penetrating deep through the layers of skin to possibly cause skin damage and cancer.

Valenty pivoted immediately. “Right after I found out, I made it a point: no more products for the cosmetic industry that uses UVA.” The result is her non-toxic and hypoallergenic nail polish brand, Dazzle Dry.

But not everyone in the nail industry shares her concerns about putting consumers’ health and safety first. Today, UV light is still used to dry nail polish, though often under the name LED (UVA and LED are basically the same thing), and many brands of nail polish contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals and other harmful ingredients.

With the options for nail care and nail polish exploding over the past few years, it can be hard to figure out which one to choose — which will be the quickest and easiest to apply, give you gorgeous, long-lasting results, and put safety first. Here is a guide to help you figure out which manicure style is the best option for you and your nails.

Gel Manicures:

In a nutshell: This option carries the most risk.

Gel manicures are similar to those with regular polish, with the biggest difference being that this glossy coat lasts a lot longer than your ordinary polish. While it might seem like the better option — who wouldn’t want their salon-perfected manicure to last up to two weeks? — this type of polish has one major downside: it only works when exposed to harmful UV light. It’s this exposure that sets the polish into a durable, chip-resistant coat.

Valenty says one of the biggest changes she’s seen in the nail industry since she got her start in the late 1980s is the launch of gel polishes. “That probably is because the current consumers want instant gratification. However, they don't see the dangers lurking in those products.”

In addition to requiring exposure to potentially damaging rays, gel polishes also contain chemically reactive ingredients called monomers, which can cause severe lifelong allergies after prolonged contact. If you do opt for a gel manicure, the lamp and gel should be from the same brand, make sure your nail tech uses one pad per nail to wipe off the top layer after drying so that the uncured monomer does not touch your skin, and have the polish removed properly when you’re done with it to protect your nails from damage. Attempting to peel the gel off yourself can strip your nail plate and result in thin, brittle nails over the long term.

Dip Nails:

In a nutshell: While dip manicures may not be as risky for your health, they can be tough on your nails.

To get dip nails, you first apply a base coat before either swiping powdered pigment on your nails or sticking your nails in a pigment jar. Then, a sealant is placed on top that reacts with the air and hardens the color into a durable coat that can last up to five weeks.

Dip powdered nails look good and stay that way for a lot longer than other nail care options. While they don’t require UV light to dry and harden (a major plus), they do come with some risks. The first is with the dip jar-style manicure. Even if you are the only one using a jar of pigment, a multi-use container can develop bacteria between uses. (Don’t even get us started on community jars at the salon — you don’t know where someone else’s hands have been!) Make sure that your manicurist is applying the powder directly to your nails and that she does so in a way that doesn’t risk contamination from the last person’s visit.

While most dip powders claim to be free of the “toxic trio” of ingredients historically found in nail polish, with some touting that they’ve also removed additional chemicals that might cause harm, there is some concern that these acrylic powders and their application (basically super glue) could still contain ingredients that aren’t all that great for you, though more research is needed.

The acrylic pigments used in this method and the adhesives they include can also damage your nails – by weakening the top layer leading to cracked and brittle nails and constricting your cuticles – or cause an allergic reaction. The harsh chemicals required to remove this polish (100% acetone) makes life for your nails even harder. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends you do not get your cuticles cut before going full dip in order to avoid infection and that you allow your nails time to rest and repair between manicures.

Traditional/Basic Polish:

In a nutshell: One of the safest options as long as you choose a specialty nail polish brand that is non-toxic.

The bread and butter of the rainbow of nail polish options are the traditional polishes you can pick up at any drugstore. They are easily removed with nail polish remover and offer an almost unlimited number of hues (bonus points for their clever names), but they also have some lackluster downsides.

For one, they chip easily and don’t last very long. Your hands are also pretty much out of commission for an hour after swiping on a coat of traditional nail polish. Of more concern is the fact that some nail polishes contain harmful ingredients like the toxic trio. Brands like OPI and Essie claim to be “three-free,” and that’s a good first step. But polishes can contain other concerning ingredients beyond the three biggies.

If you want to take your clean nail journey a step further, look for non-toxic options like ella + mila and Dazzle Dry. With Dazzle Dry, not only has Valenty pioneered a nail care system that dries quickly and is long-lasting, she says she also tests every barrel of chemicals that go into her polishes to ensure that they aren’t secretly contaminated with ingredients like toluene or phthalates that could be harmful. It's a level of oversight that larger operations are just too big to have.

Polish Free:

In a nutshell: While not the most colorful, this is the most risk-free option.

For those seeking a totally toxin-free approach, natural nails are the way to go. While it might not be as colorful as a painted manicure, it can still look sleek and chic if you focus on regularly treating your nails to some TLC: proper filing, moisturizing your cuticles, and buffing your nails for a natural shine. To support your nail health, think about taking a supplement that helps boost collagen production to support healthy nails, like Veracity’s Estrogen Revive.

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to nail care. The key is to weigh the pros and cons of each option and choose what is best for you. Veracity founder Allie Egan has embraced clean, polish-free fingernails in her effort to get EDCs out of her life…but she still goes the traditional pedicure-with-polish route for her gnarly, runner’s toes.

For Valenty, the one thing that’s needed above all is transparency: “I get criticized, sometimes ostracized, by those who love gels. Why? They think that I'm taking away their livelihood by talking about the dangers that are lurking in those products.” But Valenty says that’s not what she’s doing. Rather, she’s advocating for transparency, which she says will protect both the industry and the consumers. “I think when women understand what the risks are, you protect yourselves. You let the consumer decide for themselves, how much risk they're willing to take.”

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