A healthier nail salon might not be top priority since you love your quick and cheap go-to local spot. That is, unless you've ever contracted an infection after a nail salon visit.
Then, you might look twice at that clearly reused nail file that's gliding across your nails or the questionably clean whirlpool bath your feet are soaking in. Many nail salons are cesspools of bacteria due to bad practices. And then there's the whole toxic element—toxic nail polishes and services (ahem, acrylic nails) are doing your nails and lungs a disservice. It doesn't have to be so, though!
Ali Elman, co-founder of Base Coat Nail Salon, who believes wellness should not be compromised for beauty, shows us what to look for in a healthier nail salon and what your expectations should be no matter where you go. Period.
Unhealthy Nail Salon Red Flags
The following top three things are big nail salon no-nos to look out for.
1. They reuse supplies, such as emery boards, foot files, toe separators and disposable flip flops
"Nothing porous should ever be reused, and yes, a lot of salons do reuse these items to save a buck...pretty terrifying," Elman says.
2. They pull out the "cheese grater" tool
"If you see this—run! Those are illegal in most states, and can do more harm than good," Elman says.
3. Your nail tech tries to cut your cuticles
"Cuticles protect your nails. At Base Coat, we only lightly trim hangnails and loose dead skin that is visible after pushing the cuticles back. The small area of skin is there to protect your nails from infection. When this skin is removed, your nail is left unprotected from bacteria and fungus," Elman explains.
The 411 on Non-Toxic Nail Polishes
Always look and ask for 5-Free nail polish brands, which means they don't include the top five toxic chemical offenders: formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde resin and camphor. There are also 7-, 8- and 9-Free that don't contain ingredients like ethyl tosylamide, xylene and parabens. "The best polishes will also be vegan and gluten and cruelty free," Elman says.
Non-toxic nail polish brands include Zoya, Spa Ritual, Ella+Mila, Base Coat, Floss Gloss, Smith & Cult, Chanel, Jinsoon and Deborah Lippmann. Have a brand you love not listed here? Most feature information about ingredients, chemicals and cruelty-free policies in their website's FAQs section.
"Or, if you want to avoid polish and any chemicals altogether, we always recommend to just go for a nice shine buff," Elman says.
Is there such a thing as a healthier gel nails?
Actually, yes, but it's not widespread yet. Elman says her salon offers a medical-grade oxygenating 5-Free gel polish. "We would never do anything we feel would comprise anyone’s health. It took us three years to research and test to find the least non-toxic gel that was aligned with our ethos as a company."
Healthier gel polish aside, the real culprit that causes damage to the nail bed is improper gel removal—either by an ill-trained nail tech or by people picking it off (oops). "So, make sure you go to a salon that knows how to gently remove gel," Elman recommends. Gel nail removal should not involve major scraping.
Acrylic Nails are No Good
Acrylic nails can cause problems, such as an infection and weaken nails making them prone to breakage. "If an acrylic nail is damaged or as your natural nails grow, a gap can develop between the acrylic and your natural nail. This gap provides a moist, warm environment in which a nail infection can flourish," Elman explains. "A nail infection might also occur if acrylic nails are too long or rigid, or the nails are applied with unsanitary tools."
More bad news bears: Depending on your nail strength, acrylics may be painful on the nail plate; they may cause an allergic reaction; the hard-to-clean area underneath your nail may cause your nails to be extra sensitive, especially if an MMA-based acrylic (Methyl Methacrylate) is used. "Though [this type] has been banned for use on nails because of toxicity, unfortunately some nail salons still use it," Elman warns.
Eliminating toxic polishes and omitting acrylic from the nail salon’s environment dramatically cuts the amount of problematic chemicals typically present in a nail salon, Elman says, so you (and your nail tech) aren't breathing that stuff in. If a salon is doing these things as well as cleaning properly and not reusing materials, those are all good signs that its a healthier nail salon.
Don't Be Afraid to Ask Questions
Lastly, if you have concerns or see something you don't like at a nail salon, don't hesitate to ask questions. Feel free to question what kind of nail polishes and products are being used on you and how they sanitize tools, mani tables and pedicure bowls. And if your gut feeling is telling you to leave, leave.
Guess what? Non-toxic nail polish removers DO exist. Get our favorite Healthy Nail Polish Remover.