You could cross your fingers and hope your weekly manicure and favorite nail polish are totally harmless, or you can read our expert advice and find out exactly how to score a perfect 10, sans harmful chemicals or less-than-wholesome techniques. Get ready for your best #ManiMonday yet!
Q: My nails are brittle. Is there a natural way to strengthen them?
Yes, there are plenty of good options. “Recent trends, like juice cleanses, can lead to poor protein intake and compromise your nails’ health,” says Dana Stern, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City who specializes in nail disorders. Biotin, also known as vitamin H, has been shown to help. “It’s very rare to have a biotin deficiency—the nutrient is found in peanuts, almonds, swiss chard, eggs and cold-water fish like salmon—but the best research shows that taking a daily supplement with 2.5 milligrams of biotin can improve nail brittleness.” At lunch and dinner, munch on oats, barley, rye and artichokes to increase your levels of silicon and omega-3 fatty acids, which foster strong nail growth, adds Paula Simpson, a nutrition consultant in New York City and Toronto. Simpson also suggests this moisturizing mask: Mix 3 tablespoons of olive oil with 8 drops of wheat germ oil, then dab the mix onto bare nails and cuticles with a cotton ball every night to keep them healthy and breakage-free.
Q: What’s the best way to go polish-free and still look pulled together?
It’s smart to give your nails a breather every now and then to prevent staining and dryness. Buffing adds a natural shine, but can lead to thin, damaged nails if done too often (more than once every four to six months), because it actually sands down the top of your nail. Instead, use a brush-on formula, like RGB Cosmetics Liquid Buff ($20, rgbcosmetics. com), to fake the buffed look. “It contains vitamins, calcium and biotin,” says Jenna Hipp, a green manicurist in Los Angeles. The treatment offers protection and a subtle shine that can last up to one month.
Q: What does “5-free” really mean? And are there animal ingredients in polishes?
The term 5-free refers to the absence of dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, camphor, formaldehyde and formaldehyde resin—suspected carcinogens and strong chemicals that could lead to birth defects, seizures and headaches when inhaled.
(Fortunately, these ingredients are trapped in the polish once it dries and are prevented from going beyond your cuticles and into your skin by keratin bonds in your nails.) Why are these chemicals in nail polish in the first place? “DBP can improve the lasting power of a nail lacquer, toluene helps to suspend the color and create a smooth texture, camphor is a plasticizer and formaldehyde and its resin act as hardeners,” Hipp says. If you pick up a lacquer without the 5-free claim on the bottle, it’s likely these ingredients are in the formula. “They’re still widely prevalent in America,” Hipp adds. Good thing a slew of nontoxic polishes, offering glossy color and impressive staying power, are now available. You can also opt for a water-based formula, like Scotch Naturals Premium Nail Lacquer ($15, spiritbeautylounge.com) or Piggy Paint Nail Polish ($9, piggypaint.com).
“They’re made with milder chemicals than those in regular, solvent-based polish—usually harmless acrylic resins and gels,” says Jim Hammer, a cosmetic chemist in Boston. The downside: They don’t last as long. “The color easily peels off after hands have been exposed to water,” Hipp says. If your concern is animal ingredients, you should only pick up polishes that announce they’re vegan on the label. Many companies use animal-based dyes and fish scales to create a shimmer or pearl finish.
Q: Is it safe to use quick-dry spray or drops?
“Both sprays and drops typically contain volatile silicones that evaporate fast, taking the polish solvent along with them,” says Stern. “I am not aware of any health issues with these components, and they’re used widely in personal-care products.” One kind to avoid: ozone-depleting aerosol sprays. Choose quick-dry oil and bring your own to the salon if they don’t carry it. Not convinced? Nail dryers and patience are your other options—just make sure the dryer at your salon allows you to turn off any UV lights in the machine, to protect your hands from skin-cancer-causing rays. At home, Hipp suggests using a blow-dryer on the cool setting.
Q: What about salon gel manis? Are those polishes also filled with chemicals?
The answer is yes … a big resounding yes! “Because of the curing process involved—which includes lab-made substances activated by UV light—neither salon nor at-home gel manicures can ever be considered natural, no matter what the label claims,” Hipp says. A whole host of side effects, like peeling, breaking, discoloration and infections—plus that bit about soaking your nails in pure acetone to get the polish off—should make you think twice about getting gels, anyway. For long-lasting color, your best options are polishes and top coats that promise “gel-like” benefits and don’t require a UV light, offered at drugstores and now even by high-end brands at department stores. Because you can take the color off with regular nail polish remover, these formulas are inherently less likely to cause brittleness. Bear in mind they won’t last as long as UV-light versions, but should stay chip-free for a minimum of seven days. And don’t forget to look for a 5-free formula!
Keep These Polishes Handy
Try these five great buys for beautiful, healthy tips:
- 5-Free Polish: JinSoon Nail Polish ($18, spacenk.com)
- Biotin Supplement: GNC Biotin 2500 mcg ($26, gnc.com)
- 5-Free Gel Polish: Revlon ColorStay Gel Envy Nail Enamel ($8, drugstores)
- Quick-Dry Oil: Zoya Fast Drops ($16, zoya.com)
- Vegan Polish: Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics nail lacquer ($10, occmakeup.com)
Take It Off
The most common ingredient in remover is acetone, a powerful chemical solvent. And though it’s effective at cleaning off color in just a few seconds, “it’s extremely drying to nails, cuticles and the skin around them,” Stern says. The safer option: a non-acetone remover with natural alcohols (like methyl soyate or dimethyl glutarate) that also contains moisturizing essential oils, says Hipp. These are our all-natural picks: Priti Soy Nail Polish Remover ($13, pritinyc.com), Crabtree & Evelyn Nail Polish Remover Wipes ($5 for eight, crabtree-evelyn.com) and Josie Maran Bear Naked Nail Wipes ($16 for 40, sephora.com).