Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Dear Umbra,

I like to have my nails done and hair straightened, but I have read some stuff recently that makes me think it’s bad for the environment, bad for my health, and even worse for the health of the people who work in salons. Help! Is there any way I can get the look and pampering I want without poisoning myself and others?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Sheila S.
Brooklyn, NY

Woman with nail polishBeauty is a beast!Photo: Kristie WebsterA. Dearest Sheila,

It’s not every day I quote a Peter Gabriel song, Sheila. But the line “If looks could kill they probably will” sprang to mind upon reading your letter. 

So let’s take a look at “looks.” There have been two stories in The New York Times in recent weeks calling certain hair and nail salon treatments into question for their potential health impacts, both on the people getting the treatments and on those giving them.

The first hair-raising piece concerns a popular and expensive hair-straightener. The Times reported on “significant levels of formaldehyde in the hair-smoothing solution sold under the name Brazilian Blowout. (A common ingredient found in many products, formaldehyde is a recognized carcinogen if it is present at high levels.)”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Though the company Brazilian Blowout prominently states on its website and packaging that the product is formaldehyde-free, a report just out from Oregon OSHA [PDF] found an average of 8 percent formaldehyde in the samples of the product that they tested. 

If carcinogens aren’t enough to make you feel not-so-pampered, imagine how the salon workers administering the Brazilian Blowouts must feel. Many have reported difficulty breathing, nose bleeds, and eye irritation from the stuff. Some salons have resorted to giving employees and customers respirators to wear. Why go to such hair-raising lengths?

Let’s get at least this straight, Sheila. These “keratin-based” straighteners and Brazilian Blowouts are a Hairdon’t. If your frizz or curls are still something you’d like to have ironed out, well, how about using a hot iron? Or you can make a DIY hair straightener from olive oil, honey, milk, or lemon. Think of all the money you’ll save not having to help foot the bill for salon respirators.

Abolish polish?

Let’s move on to the extremities and talk about nails. Here’s the definitive word from my favorite Grist book, Wake Up and Smell the Planet. This passage nails it:

If you are willing to give up just one beauty product, make it nail polish. A 2006 study by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum reported that the nail industry uses 10,000 chemicals in its products, 89 percent of which have not been safety tested by any independent agency, and some of which are known or suspected carcinogens.

If you want some appendage pampering, Sheila, a better way to go for the health of yourself and salon workers is to look for more sustainable nail salons. Keep in mind, no matter which nail salon you go to, there is no purely nontoxic nail polish. But there are better polishes and healthier salons. Nail polish brands, like Priti Polishes, are made without endocrine disruptors and carcinogens such as formaldehyde, dibutyl phathalate (DBP), toluene, and camphor.  

You can check the safety ratings of polishes on the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep database. Avoid acetone polish removers but do keep soy based nail polished remover at your fingertips instead. Another way to get that salon look is nail buffing, a great, easy way to feel polished without the paint. 

Feeling pretty and pampered while saving pennies and helping the planet — now that’s beautiful. Here’s looking at you, Sheila!


Get off your ass alert:

Host a pampering party with friends. Give each other a toxic-free makeover. And while you’re together, you beauties can watch The Story of Cosmetics and show your support for legislation to support safe cosmetics.

Helpful links:

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.