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How I Discovered I'm Allergic to Nail Polish

And found a whole new world of non-toxic nail products!

About a year ago, I started noticing that my cuticles were turning red and swollen, and were even starting to blister a little bit. (They were teeny, tiny micro-blisters... but still gross nonetheless.) I had no idea what was wrong, went to the derm four times, got four different creams, but nothing changed.

So, I decided to play doctor. With a major in Radio and Television Arts, and a minor in English, it made total sense to self-diagnose... *sarcasm*. I managed to find stories about other women who were going through the same thing. Lo and behold, their symptoms all led back to a NAIL POLISH ALLERGY.

Kind of a sick joke for a nail art fanatic like myself.

I had a zillion questions, so I got in touch with Dr. Neal Schultz, a New York dermatologist and the host of DermTV. After talking to him, I understood my allergy a little bit better, but even more importantly, I got some info about nail polish that I wanted to share with you!

Is nail polish actually harmful?

In other words, is it bad for your nails and surrounding skin? According to Dr. Schultz: "No. If you do not manifest an allergy or a negative physical reaction, then it is totally harmless.”

But if you do, like me? Dr. Schultz suggested patch testing—applying different polish brands for 48 hours to see if you develop a reaction. (But more on that in a sec.)

Otherwise, what type of nail polish you choose is all about personal preference. Over the past 10 years, most mainstream nail polish brands have transitioned into “3-free” formulas (i.e. free of the three main chemicals: dibutyl phthalate or DBP, formaldehyde and toluene).However, most polishes still contain other ingredients, such as formaldehyde resin and camphor, that some folks say are linked to toxicity.

If all this chemical talk is starting to freak you out a bit, there are tons of alternatives to chemical-based polishes out there.

Do water-based polishes actually work?

A lot of people who have tried water-based polishes instantly kick ‘em to the curb because they don’t work perform like a "regular" polish.

Humour me, though. Think about regular paint. Non-toxic paint that we put in front of kindergarteners is not even in the same realm as the paint that we use on our bedroom walls. They just simply cannot be compared!

When I first realized I was allergic to polish, I tried a completely water-based, non-toxic brand called Scotch Naturals:

Scotch Naturals Non-Toxic Nail Polish, $14.99 each; see here for locations.

Since the formula is more watery than I was used to, I needed to apply a few more coats than normal.

But on the plus side, Scotch Naturals On The Rocks Top Coat (super cute name, eh?) is WAY tougher than most of the top coats I’ve tried in my day. And through this allergy journey, I’ve tried quite a few.

Pro tip: If Scotch Naturals polish interests you, go for the darker colours. They are much easier to apply evenly and actually appear opaque, whereas most of the light colours are sheer.

My new fave base and top coats 

Here's something you might not know. While most nail polishes are now 3-free, base and top coats from many mainstream brands STILL have formaldehyde, a chemical that acts as a hardener and helps speed the drying process. (So, yeah. I can totally understand why you'd want that in your top coat).

With Dr. Schultz’s suggestion of patch testing, I discovered that the formaldehyde in top coats and base coats spurred my allergy the most.

Luckily, I discovered SpaRitual, which makes my new favourite (formaldehyde-free) base coat:

The Skincare Edit Recommends

SpaRitual Lacquer Lock ColorStay Basecoat; see here for locations.

SpaRitual is not only 3-free, but vegan as well. I also have several of their nail polishes:

SpaRitual Nail Lacquer, $12.50 each; click here to learn more and purchase.

They are, might I add, naturally coloured and free of synthetic dyes. Pretty cool, eh? Their newest line, Meditate, is infused with Ecocert-certified bamboo to help strengthen the nails.

JINsoon's quick-dry top coat is—get ready—5-free! Not just three... FIVE: it's formulated without formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin and camphor.

JINsoon Top Gloss, $22; click here to learn more and purchase.

JINsoon's special formula penetrates right through to the base coat to create a single bond of polish, leaving your manicure super-strong. And I must say, for about four months now (a.k.a. a trillion manicures) it has been my go-to.

The BEST alternative

Even if you don't have an allergy, Dr. Schultz says it's still a good idea to let your nails "breathe."

Now, even a year ago, letting my nails breathe would have meant boring, naked nails. However, when I was going through my strict no-polish phase, letting my hands recover, thank the Lord for these:

Essie Sleek Stick Nail Appliqués, $10.25 each; click here to learn more and purchase.

Essie's Sleek Stick collection is by far my favourite nail wrap/sticker collection on shelves right now. How cute are all these designs?! Most of which no one could draw by hand in such detail. There's matte, shiny, and even some three-dimensional designs!

Even though you only need 10 stickers, you actually get 18 in each kit, with varying widths and cuticle shapes. There is literally every possible combination to ensure each nail gets full sticker coverage! Also, a lot of nail stickers give you weird bumps and bubbles, but these are pre-cured under UV lights, which makes for a perfect, creaseless adhesion to the nail. After you place the sticker where you want it, you fold the excess downwards, and then file it away with the included nail file (which by the way, is AH-MAZING! I’ve actually stored one in my purse as my on-the-go nail file since it is so cute and teeny).

These are truly perfect not just for people like me, with a nail polish allergy, but also those who just don't care to spend the time meticulously attempting detailed nail art. My personal favourite is called So Haute. I liked it so much I thought it deserved a little Instagram collage:

For those who are interested, I kept my polish off for about a month or so to let my cuticles heal. I can use most polishes still, but my cuticles swell, blister, and cry when I use a "regular" top or base coat with formaldehyde in it.

Now, after a long journey, my cuticles are finally starting to look normal again (thank God!).

Rikki Ciminsky is a student at Ryerson University in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @rikki_see.

So, tell me...

Have you ever experienced an allergic reaction to nail polish?

Have you tried (and liked?) water-based nail polish or nail art stickers?

Do you care about all the chemicals in nail polish?

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