Why I Stopped Getting Manicures

by Ann Marie Michaels on July 20, 2010

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A new video by Robert Greenwald exposes how dangerous it is to have manicures and pedicures. I like this video because it shows that toxic ingredients used in manicures and pedicures not only affect us, the customers, but more importantly, the people working in these salons who are exposed to these toxic chemicals day after day.

Nail salons in California have tripled in the past two decades. 95% of the workers in nail salons are women, and 80% of them are Vietnamese. (Source: Breast Cancer Risk in California Nail Salon Workers)

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not contribute to someone else’s breast cancer just so I can have pretty pink toenails. :-(

And it’s not just the workers who get sick. It’s us. When you do a little research you find that getting your nails done is a health hazard.

Toxic Chemicals

The video outlines the “toxic trio” of chemicals used at nail salons and in nail products:

  • Formaldehyde – used in disinfectants causes cancer and asthma
  • Toluene – used in nail polish; affects short-term memory and is toxic to developing fetus
  • Phtalates – used in nail polish; reproductive dangers/birth defects

Of course, these are just a few. There are many other very toxic chemicals used in manicures and pedicures.

How We Get Exposed to Chemicals

Of concern are the fumes you breathe in, but we also need to remember that chemicals are also absorbed through the skin’s pores. It’s funny to me that we know nicotine patches work, and yet we don’t think anything of painting carcinogenic nail polish onto our nails.

According to former manicurist, Sheila Mossberg:

Every time you have a manicure, your nails and the skin or your arms and hands are taking on and absorbing these toxic chemicals and they are being stored in your body’s fatty tissues… (Source: Nontoxique Beauty Blog)

If you don’t buy the idea that nail polish can be absorbed into the blood stream, read this by the Environmental Working Group:

If the DBP (dibutyl phthalate) stayed intact in the polish, women might absorb negligible amounts of the chemical into their bodies. But a group of scientists in Hamburg, Germany showed that water-soluble components of the polish, like DBP, are dissolved out of the polish each time they contact water, a conclusion they reached after measuring the leaching of DBP from nail polish that had dried for three days.

In fact, one of the reasons nail polish eventually chips is that it becomes brittle as DBP is leached out of the film. This means that every time a woman washes her hands, DBP is washed out of her nail polish and contacts her skin. The scientists conclude that “water-soluble components… attain the skin during extensive but transient contact.” Therefore, a woman wearing nail polish not only can absorb DBP through her nail, but also has multiple opportunities to absorb DBP directly through her skin.

Is It Really That Bad?

Some may say I’m overreacting. For example, here’s a quote from a law firm’s website:

People talk about 50,000 parts per million of a phthalate in nail polish being typical of the amount found. It may sound like a lot. It’s five percent. Yet if a woman used and absorbed all of the dibutyl phthalate from five – 5 – full bottles of nail polish every day, her exposure would still be about equal to a level that produced no effects in laboratory animals.

What this hypothetical example doesn’t take into account is that those lab rats are not being exposed to phthalates in other products as well. In reality, most beauty and personal care products contain phthalates. In 2002, a phthalates report was released that showed that three quarters of off-the-shelf beauty products contained phthalates — but they were not listed on the label. (Source: Breast Cancer Risk in California Nail Salon Workers)

Besides that, what do they mean when they say “no effects in laboratory animals”? OK, so they didn’t die. Maybe they didn’t develop huge, obvious tumors. But how do we know what happened to them? How long did they study them? I may not have a tumor now, but what about next year or the year after?

Oh, and by the way, if you read the fine print on that law firm website, it says, “Information courtesy of phthalates.com.” Gee, I wonder who runs phthalates.com?

Oh, right, the European Council for Plasticisers and Intermediates (ECPI). Chemical corporations. Well, of course they think it’s safe!

The thing is, all the chemicals we consume via the air, our skin, our food, do end up in our bodies. As Sheila Mossberg said above, these chemicals get stored in our fatty tissue. Like our breasts.

Personally, I’d like to avoid breast cancer. So I’m steering clear of nail polish.

Safe Alternatives

If you really want to get your nails done, there are some safe options. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics:

Several companies … make nail polishes, treatments and removers without harmful chemicals… So you don’t have to give up your mani-pedi visits, just BYOP (Bring Your Own Polish) the next time you go!

Here are some sources for truly non-toxic nail polish (1-3 hazard score on the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database):

Honeybee Gardens
Suncoat Products
Acquarella Nail Polish

This post is part of Monday Mania at the Healthy Home Economist.

Disclosure: cmp.ly/4 and cmp.ly/5

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Virginia July 20, 2010 at 1:26 PM

We love our Piggy Paint here! Can’t beat it for me or the kids. We also have (thankfully) a local organic salon that does very safe manicures/pedicures.

Great info to have for those not informed!


Christine July 20, 2010 at 1:29 PM

I use Suncoat and I love it! It’s the only nail polish I will use now.


Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist July 20, 2010 at 1:52 PM

I have never liked getting my nails or toes done (thankfully!), but my daughter is a girly girl and loves this kind of stuff. I do it for her at home and would not let her get it done in a salon – no way. Will have to check out Suncoat for a safer alternative. I have been using the nonacetone polish remover at least.


Joanna July 20, 2010 at 1:53 PM

Thanks for posting this, it’s something I’ve been pondering lately. I only get a few pedicures a year and rarely do my nails, but still I wonder about the exposure to me and the employees. I also fret over my hair stylist and all the products she is exposed to every day. Worries me!


Lolo July 20, 2010 at 1:54 PM

Thank you for posting this! I read a book by Dr. Hulda Clark called “The Cure for All Cancers” and it made me realize that my immune system was having to work overtime to remove the daily chemicals I exposed myself to. Either through makeup, nail polish, canned beverages, fiberglass insulation, benzene in ice cream etc! I was astonished that I never wondered where my makeup went if I failed to wash my face before bed. People don’t even think of all the fragrances and colorings they expose themselves to in their dish detergent, laundry soap, bath soaps and so on. I got rid of it ALL! Trashed it! I only drink RO water and I stopped smoking 2 yrs ago. I have been lucky and I never had cancer but thought the book was interesting and it helped me to understand how much I could help myself by helping my immune system have an easier time battling life threatening things that may occur. I feel much better now. I wish people would stop smearing themselves with chemicals. I try to tell others and they look at me like I am crazy.


Erin L. July 20, 2010 at 2:07 PM

I’m so thankful that I’ve only had 5-10 manicures in my 33 years. I wonder if anyone is looking out for embalmers? I’ve been contemplating burial practices lately. Kinda morbid, I know, but it’s important to make plans in order to save our loved ones from unnecessary stress during an already stressful time. Anyway, the embalming process involves some nasty chemicals, too (LOTS of formaldehyde). I think eco-friendly funerals would be an interesting topic for a post. :)


cheeseslave July 20, 2010 at 2:16 PM

Christine – I love Suncoat too! They also have a child’s nail polish that is the absolute safest — that is what I let my daughter use (of course it only stays on a short time but she doesn’t mind that).


cheeseslave July 20, 2010 at 2:19 PM

Joanna –

I was like you — I used to do a few pedicures a year too and I never did a manicure. I just can’t be bothered! I’m always messing up my nails digging around in the garden.

I switched to an Aveda salon. They still use some chemicals but it is a lot less toxic. This year I’m going to try just to get more sun and not do any highlighting at all.

I wish I were a redhead or brunette so I could do henna — but we’ll see how a little sun and lemon juice works. I need more sun anyway!


Sarah July 20, 2010 at 3:03 PM

I never was big into salon manicures, but it is a rare day when my toes aren’t painted a dark, glossy red. When I was pregnant with my first (who is now three) every time I walked by a salon I felt nauseous from the fumes (and I never got morning sickness!) and the thought of all that “stuff” in the air and it started me questioning what was in those polishes. I’ve since started reading more of the ingredients on those as well and have sought out the “healthier” ones when I can!

The Ulta Beauty store’s Ulta brand of nail polish is DBP, Toulene and Fourmaldehyde Free and my hair salon, which is also an Aveda salon, carries Zoya brand of nail polishes which are also free of those three. Both brands seem to work just as well as my old brands . . . haven’t checked them out on the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database yet, but I’m happy to be able to have access to them pretty easily!

Great post Ann Marie!



Gretchen July 20, 2010 at 5:32 PM

Thanks for the info! I am on a journey to be healthier and do things more naturally and I’m so glad you posted this. I have manicured nails and hadn’t thought about how toxic it is. My husband loves my nails so I’m not sure what to do. Do you know of any salons that use safe products for manicures?

Thanks again!!


Sarah @MainLineMoms July 20, 2010 at 5:58 PM

Excellent post. I started bringing my own polish for manicures when I was pregnant and found out about the formaldehyde in most polishes. Thanks for spreading the word, more women need to know about this!


MamaBee July 20, 2010 at 6:14 PM

I’m sporting Aquarella in sparkly lavender on my toes right now. My toddler wanted painted toenails (she’s much girlier than I) – so glad to find a nontoxic option. We each picked one color as it is pricy.


Cara @ Health Home and Happiness July 21, 2010 at 10:34 AM

I’m so glad you brought up the health of the workers. That’s something I’ve been paying attention to more with where we buy our clothing or food. Never been a salon person, though I painted my nails blue and white when I was on the swim team in high school :D


Raine Saunders July 22, 2010 at 5:00 PM

I used to wear nail polish all the time, for many years. I only had one manicure done in my life though. Something about it has always bothered me. Many years ago, I simply didn’t want to pay for something I could do myself, enough to my own liking. I used to be a music promoter and was involved in the underground music scene for many years, and I’d wear a lot of black, purple, red, silver, and blue. Inherently I knew the nail polish itself wasn’t good for me, but I didn’t really ever realize just how bad it was. Several years ago I stopped wearing it altogether because I was getting tired of having to redo my nails every few days to a week when the polish would start wearing off. And over time, I just sort of starting thinking more and more about how dangerous those chemicals were, and suddenly it lost its appeal. I know there are nail polishes that aren’t as bad, and there’s a small chance I may paint them again sometime for fun. But for the most part, I don’t really want to use nail polish anymore. Great post Ann Marie!


tina July 22, 2010 at 10:04 PM

I’m 41 and have only painted my fingernails and toesnails a handful of times. Never thought it was good thing even was I was eating crap food.


tina July 22, 2010 at 10:05 PM

…even WHEN i was eating crap food.


Joanna July 22, 2010 at 10:21 PM

The point that resonated with me was that those working in salons are at a higher risk of illness and so our choices have a detrimental, or positive, effect on others.

Take the issue of hair dye… what is washing down the drain into our water supply? Bleach, ammonia and toxic by products of already toxic products! Thus using safe, genuinely natural (perhaps even certified organic) products is a WIN:WIN not only safer for us but also lessens the effect on those living downstream.

Women’s choices such as birth control pill; which is often found in drinking water in cities and can increase oestrogen levels, anti-bacterial soap not only can affect our health, it too is thought to be oestrogenic. Triclosan in anti-bacterial soap is known to damage aquatic life & winds up in our drinking water and is a persistent bio-accumulative.

Well done on this post, it highlights a hugely important issue- that safe personal care is more global than we might think.


kandemom July 12, 2011 at 7:41 PM

I really like the perspective of how our choices effect others. We may only be in that nail salon once or twice, but the workers are there every day breathing in the fumes and getting the chemicals on their skin. The hormones we pee out from birth control get in the water and are later consumed by young girls. Every action has a consequence. And sometimes it is some else who is going to pay for our choices.


bobcat July 24, 2010 at 3:34 AM

I have a lot of nail polish bottles I’ve accumulated throughout my life, though ironically, I very rarely paint my nails……for all the reasons listed above.

I’m thinking it would be good to just get rid of all these bottles. Does anyone know if there is a “safe” way to get rid of them? I hate the idea of them breaking in a garbage truck….like 100 of them! (because I worry for the workers) Or breaking in a landfill. Which may be unavoidable.

I’m guessing there is no disposal system for nailpolish like there is for things like batteries, appliances, and I think prescription drugs?

Should I just triple/quadruple bag them, throw them away, and hope for the best? Anyone know of a better way?


Lauren October 13, 2011 at 10:24 AM

to dispose of oil paints we are supposed to open them and let them dry out completely first, as then they’re not so reactive. Perhaps a similar technique here would help?


Michelle @ Find Your Balance July 26, 2010 at 5:10 PM

I’ve also stopped getting manicures for the same reason. For dressy occasions I have some of these less-toxic nail products but I prefer just keep my nails trimmed, filed and buffed to a shine. And as my yoga teacher says “Let your toenails breathe!”


Maria Elena July 30, 2010 at 1:58 PM

I’m so glad you wrote this post. I didn’t get pedicures and manicures often, 3x a year max, but I’ve stopped completely because of the chemicals. I used to try to lessen my exposure by brining my own products, but even just sitting in there makes me sick. Plus they always cut off your cuticles!
I knew a girl in college who was allergic to cigarette smoke, she couldn’t be near it. The reason for this was because her family owned a nail place and growing up there resulted in her no longer having the hairs in her nose (the chemicals burned them off), thus she had no filter when breathing. Pretty aweful stuff!

I second the post on eco-friendly funerals.


120mm fan November 17, 2010 at 9:28 AM

nail polish that are acrylic based seems to last longer on my finger nails compared to water based ones ‘*~


PolishGirl June 17, 2012 at 9:56 AM

I have been using water-based Acquarella polish on my nails, and I find it has been lasting longer on my nails than conventional polish. Also, the healthier my nails are getting from using this polish, the longer I find the polish lasts.

It might be that you need to buff your nails and be careful not to have any oils on your nails when applying the polish. If you have been using conventional polish for a long time, it may take longer for your nails to adjust to the water-based polishes.


tessag July 5, 2011 at 8:29 AM

Love my naked fingernails and toenails!


kandemom July 12, 2011 at 7:32 PM

I’m glad I am reading through your archives! I was thinking about taking my almost 4 year old to get her first manicure. She doesn’t need the polish, but her cuticles are in need of some help! I guess I’ll have to find some safe products and do it myself.


LeahS July 20, 2011 at 10:10 PM

I can’t stand the smell of those places just walking by the front! YUCK! I do feel awful for the people working in them


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anna July 15, 2014 at 9:48 AM

The formaldehyde in vaccines going directly into my blood stream worries me more than nail polish.


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