Nail polish originated in China around 5,000 years ago. Black and red polish was reserved for Chinese royalty. Up into the 20th century nail polish technology more or less depended on egg whites, beeswax, vegetable dyes and a lot of buffing.
With the advent of modern laboratory chemicals and, more recently, the introduction of photoinitiated polymerisation, women have had access to the manicure product of their dreams – tough, beautiful, richly-coloured, long-lasting nail gels.
As any woman who has had a gel manicure can attest, gels last longer than regular polish by an average of two to three weeks, as opposed to days with regular polish.
Many gel polish manufacturers still use the ‘toxic trio’ of dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene and formaldehyde, but some no longer do.
Absorbed through the nail bed and exposed cuticles, DBP is a known reproductive and developmental toxin, while toluene is a solvent and volatile organic compound used in paints and lacquers, and can cause kidney failure, liver and biliary tract damage, and serious muscle injury (BMC Emerg. Med., 2015). Formaldehyde, of course, is a known systemic neurotoxin.
In an effort to avoid the use of phthalates, the nail polish industry turned to alternatives such as triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), a chemical used in plastics to increase flexibility. However, studies have shown that TPHP may be an endocrine disruptor (it interferes with hormones) and may perturb carbohydrate/glucose and lipid metabolism, as well as interfere with DNA repair and, at low concentrations, with normal metabolism and cell cycles. (Sci. Rep., 2106).
There are other chemicals in nail gel products. However, it is not always possible to tell if any of these toxic materials are in gel polish (or any other nail product) just by reading the label. In the UK, an ingredients list is required, but only if space on the packaging allows. In the US, no ingredient approval is required for nail products, and the polishes used in salons are not required to list their ingredients.
UV light causes skin cancer, melanomas, skin discolouration and bruising
A joint study by Duke University in North Carolina and the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that two of the eight polishes testing positive for TPHP had not disclosed its presence on the labels, while the chemical was found in the body of every woman who used the polish for the study.
An inextricable part of the gel process is the use of a nail gel lamp. This little box contains several bulbs that emit the appropriate wavelength of light to activate the photoinitiators in the gel. This turns the liquid into a hard polymer finish. Herein lies the major problem with gel polishes; UV light causes skin cancer, melanomas, skin discolouration and bruising, as well as speeding up skin ageing. On a personal note, this is where I began to notice a difference, the skin on the back of my hand is becoming very thin and ageing quicker than the rest of my body.
Modern gels use long-wave UVA light rather than short-wave UVB, which is even more dangerous. The technology has now advanced with these UV lamps used to cure nails, and gel lights now filter out most of the UVB wavelengths, leaving most gel lamps with a UV output that ranges roughly from 320 to 400 nanometres (or billionths of a metre).
Marketed as ‘safe’ light-emitting diodes (LEDs), many people believe the lamps used in the gel curing process contain no harmful UV rays. They are wrong. These apparently safe LED lamps emit UVA and a small amount of UVB at a high concentration.
“There’s no way around the step of using UVA rays,” says Chris Adigun, a dermatologist and nail specialist based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, US. “They have come up with newer types of lamps. But the lamps that cure the product faster just use a stronger dose of UVA. Nothing’s really changed. They’re all UVA lamps.”
John Humeniuk, a dermatologist and nail specialist in Greenville, South Carolina, US, compares nail-curing lights with tanning beds.
“The reality is, these light sources run at between 340 to around 380 nanometres, and UVA tanning lights operate between 320 and 400 nanometres. UVA doesn’t burn as much as the old-fashioned UVB lights, but it is still a promoter of skin cancers, melanomas and general skin ageing.”
Humeniuk says he doesn’t know how many women actually get their nails done every two or three weeks. However, it is clear that doing so for several years consecutively is a bad idea.
So if you are going to have your nails done regularly, which is what most women do, Adigun recommends using a physical UV shield (www.youveeshield.com). He says: “Sunscreen is neither effective nor reasonable because most sunscreens require 20 minutes to soak in and those 20 minutes don’t exist in the middle of a manicure. They also don’t typically block UVA rays as effectively as you need them to, especially when you take into account that these lamps are emitting UVA rays more powerfully than the sun does.”
Next week we will look at a recipe for naturally healthy nails, nail fixers in your kitchen cupboard and tips for making gel manicures safer.