Safer Mani-Pedis: Steps You Can Take

PHOTO: Nail care products are displayed at a beauty supply shop in San Francisco, on April 9, 2012.
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Although the state of California this week reported finding a "toxic trio" of ingredients in some inaccurately labeled nail polishes, there's no need to give up those mani-pedis in the name of health.

"Manufacturers have broken the level of trust with the public and with the nail salon community," said Julia Liou, co-founder of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, Tuesday before appearing with state officials to discuss the findings of the report.

"No one can trust the labels," Liou said. The report said that some nail polish manufacturers are making claims on their product labels to be free of the "toxic trio" of chemicals linked to cancer, asthma and birth defects, even though state testing of 25 products in some cases detected them.

While accepting that some labeling may be unreliable and could be improved, consumers who want painted nails also should think about where they're having their nails done. Air quality inside a salon is important no matter how often patrons come in. It's even more important to the thousands of licensed manicurists -- 121,000 in California alone -- who may breathe chemical fumes 10 hours a day, seven days a week, said Liou, a public health administrator at Asian Health Services in Oakland, who is among advocates pressing for better ventilation to dissipate the concentrated chemical vapors.

In its "Safer Nail Salons," report, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control tested 25 randomly selected nail polishes and thinners for three common chemicals that make nail lacquers shiny, quick-drying and flexible.

One of the three toxins, the aromatic solvent toluene, can irritate the eyes, throat and lungs, damage the nervous system and potentially harm an unborn child. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which keeps polish from becoming brittle, also can cause reproductive harm. Formaldehyde, a nail hardener also used in a wide variety of products including air fresheners and the Brazilian Blowout hair straightener, is a known carcinogen.

Tests found toluene in 10 of a dozen products labeled toluene-free, and also identified at least one member of the toxic trio in five of seven products labeled as "three-free."

Despite the chemical exposures inherent in applying base coats, color, top coats and nail-hardeners to fingernails and toenails in the name of beauty, here are some ways to reduce health risks.

Consider water-based polishes like those made by Acquarella, which don't give off fumes, instead of solvent-based polishes, said Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

"I use it and it doesn't smell, which is a novelty," Malkan said.

Try brands like OPI and Sally Hansen, which have made concerted efforts to eliminate the most toxic chemicals from their nail polishes since the European Union banned the use of DBP in cosmetics in 2004 and a 2006 public campaign put pressure on the $6 billion nail care products industry to make formula changes, said Lisa Archer, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

"Clearly, it's possible to make a safer product," Archer said.

Keep children and toddlers out of nail salons. "Minimizing any exposure for kids is important, because that's when they're most vulnerable to the harmful effects of some of these chemicals," Malkan said.

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