04/18/2012 12:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The California Nail Polish Scandal and What it Means for Your Manicure

I used to think a mani/pedi made for the perfect relaxing, healthy way to escape from my life for a few minutes. I would just duck into a salon for an hour or less. I had my favorite spots in my hometown, or I'd duck in to a promising-looking shop while traveling. It seemed a nice way to get a little boost and reward -- without dependence on caffeine or sugar. Sometimes I'd talk my husband into joining, as he likes a quick glance at the latest gossip magazines laying around at every salon. Or, on occasion, I'd tote along one of my kids. I even allowed my oldest daughter at 3 years old to have her nails painted as a special treat.

As it turns out, this seemingly-benign reward can be extremely hazardous for our health. Instead of rejuvenating myself, I may have unwittingly dosed myself with a "toxic trio" -- a cocktail of three potent and potentially harmful chemicals on their own (toluene, dibutyl phthalate or DBP, and formaldehyde), which are even worse when mixed. These chemicals have turned up in nail polish and nail solvents in the U.S. according to a study just released by a California government agency, but they have been banned or their use has been heavily restricted in the European Union.

Toluene has been said to cause severe neurological damage if inhaled. DBP is a suspected endocrine disruptor. And formaldehyde (didn't we all learn this in our high school biology class?) is a strong and lethal preservative. There's a reason it's used on frog specimens, not for the living. It's also a known carcinogen. Together the three may cause birth defects, the latest research shows. (So now we know why pregnant women are supposed to avoid manicures!)

Pregnant or not, and whether these chemicals are used alone or together, common sense suggests we probably should opt NOT to be around them for any length of time, let alone wear them on our bodies daily. After all, lengthy exposure is linked to asthma, developmental problems, and other illnesses.

Surely all this means the chemicals have been removed from nail salon products, right? Well, it turns out that they are showing up, without being labeled properly and identified, in products that claimed not to include them. (Unless you're one of the few going to an organic spa that's sure to use all natural nail polish, this means you've probably inhaled them.) According to new research, despite a California mandate to restrict the use of the "toxic trio" without proper labeling, they've been found in at least 48,000 salons in California. This research uncovered not only the existence of the trio in numerous nail polishes, but some of them were found to contain higher quantities than the maximum amounts permissible even with labeling and warnings. (Lets save the idea of "proper labeling" and what's a "permissible" amount of poison in ANY cosmetic product for another article.) The point is that you may be doing yourself considerable harm with each manicure, when all you meant was to enjoy a much-deserved treat.

Now take a deep breath.

I'm not one to dwell on the bad. What's done is done. Let's talk about what we do from now on.

1. We have to boycott our nail salons, if not for our own health, for the health of all the workers who are subjected to these toxins every second of the day while they work.

2. By boycotting we should demand better polishes and not just clear-labeling for toxic polish but polish free of any harmful elements. (Yes, they do exist. Try HoneyBee Gardens water based polish and remover.)

3. We should insist on better air quality in the nail salons themselves. The ventilation system has to be more than a fan to blow around the chemicals from one seat to the next.

4. If we must get a manicure, we should only patron salons that use more natural ingredients in their polishes and removers, such as Priti. If you can't find one, then learn to do your own nails. And if you, like me, have gotten your daughter hooked, you can use a kid-friendly brand like Hopscotch Kids (at home or take it with you to the salon.

5. And if all else fails, you can forgo the paint altogether and just have your nails buffed to a shining perfection.

6. Lastly, we should write to the California Attorney General to say it's important to make these companies pay for mislabeling products. We should tell our Congressmen as well.

And that, ladies, is how we take care of this conundrum. Together. Over time we'll be able to take back our nail salons and resume our rewards. We can change the world through the power of our collective buying and boycotting actions. Our refusal to use these nail polishes will send a very clear message to the companies who make them. Trust me, the simple laws of capitalism will take effect. If we're not buying, they'll change what they're selling until we do.

For more by Amy Ziff, click here.

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