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Brand To Know: A Line Leading Change For Safer Nail Products

By Guan Tan

Felicia Yap

When Caryn Lim founded a beauty studio of her childhood dreams, she sensed something was amiss. It was 2012, and the latent health risks swirling insidiously in innocuous bottles of nail varnish were steadily exposed. Smatterings of backlash were heard in the US and European markets – but mysteriously, not here in South-East Asia. 

And everything fell into place. What she has identified, is a gap in the local nail industry. The organic nail product trend has not quite yet caught on in Singapore. Caryn knew she had to do it. 

In her studio, Caryn stocked New York city-based organic nail polish label Ginger + Liz. And regulars came back repeatedly asking for it, “People started requesting for it. And they would even bring their own bottles of Butter London.” She saw a steady stream of pregnant clients coming through the door. Ladies are often advised by caution to avoid conventional nail polish, for there’s a measured risk of it “[causing] birth defects in foetuses.” 

Felicia Yap

Save for medical concerns, many were asking for alternative products that simply wouldn’t stain their nails yellow. “Our mother’s generation, their nails were very yellow and brittle,” she explained that these ladies have been using unregulated formulas for decades, and fancied the most staining of all – deep shades of crimson. 

But there was a catch. Available organic options were pipelined from the US primarily. And their palettes were often “highlighter colours that Asians don’t particularly like. We are into reds, and nudes,” Caryn gauged. Two years later in 2014, she promptly stepped up to launch her own line, COAT – an FDA accredited, 8-free range of base and top coats, colours, and removers. 

The pioneering term for organic nail polish, 3-free, refers to nail products without a trio of noxious chemicals – formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, and toluene. 5-free followed years later, cutting back two more chemicals – formaldehyde resin, and camphor. Last year the 8-free surfaced, highlighting three more potentially harmful ingredients – triphenyl phosphate, xylene, and paraben. 

Upon launch, Caryn marketed her products as 5-free, for the trend was sweeping through the international nail industry. But prior to her launch, her research and development phase has already ruled out a broad index of potentially harmful chemicals. Last year when several scientific papers sounded out the need for 8-free, Caryn nailed it. She quickly took to clarify that COAT products have been 8-free since they started.

8-free is by date, the cleanest ingredient profile on the commercial market

Caryn alternates between Singapore and US, for the formulation and manufacturing processes are based there. The prolific Seoul-based manicurist Park Eun-Kyung, otherwise known as @nail_unistella stocks COAT in her eponymous salon, and frequently opts for COAT at fashion shoots. It makes sense, since the colours dry fast, and more importantly, it does not stain the models and celebrities’ nails. 

Despite promising growth, Caryn is worried by the lack of public awareness amongst local consumers. She has been trying to educate the sleepy industry, that consumers have rights to, and should be knowledgeable about the harm they are applying to their bodies. 

Acquaint yourself with these 8 chemicals ahead of your next manicure session:

Felicia Yap

1. Formaldehyde  

Restricted in Sweden, several European countries and Japan, formaldehyde is classified as a human carcinogen (cancer-causing) by the World Health Organisation. When used in nail polish, formaldehyde harden nails by binding to fibrous protein keratin. It leaves the nail brittle and weaker afterwards. It’s also a preservative, notably an embalming fluid used in preserving cadavers for funerals.

 2. Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

Banned by the European Union in 2004, DBP was commonly used to soften nail polish for smoother applications, in cosmetic products to moisturise skin, and to increase skin penetration of products. DBP however, is a suspected agent causing malformation of embryos, meaning it’s toxic to hormone-producing and reproductive organs. 

Women between 20 and 35 years of age appeared to be most receptive to DBP.

A study by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that “DBP exposures for 3 million women of childbearing age may be up to 20 times greater than for the average person.” 

3. Toluene

Used to thin nail polish for smooth application and for faster drying, toluene is a colourless liquid identified by its distinct, paint thinner-like smell. Long-term exposure via inhalation and skin contact may affect the brain and nerves, causing headaches, dizziness, incoordination, vision and hearing loss. A salient concern for nail manicurists, low exposure may induce lethargy, confusion, memory loss, nausea, and spontaneous abortions. 

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel in 2005 found the number of nail products containing toluene to have decreased significantly, and has since been phased out.

4. Formaldehyde Resin

You might know it as melamine formaldehyde, otherwise melamine, from the infamous plastic Chinese milk scandal from 2008. A nail hardener, it off-gas formaldehyde inhaled by users and manicurists. Formaldehyde gas is a carcinogen. 

5. Camphor

A scented substance extracted from the Camphor tree, a species native to China, Taiwan, Japan and the region, expectant and breast-feeding mothers are advised to avoid it. Camphor’s safety of use remains unknown. Camphor is absorbed through the skin, and is an active ingredient in the household nasal decongestant Vicks VapoRub.

6. Triphenyl Phosphate (TPHP)

A substitute for DBP, TPHP softens nail varnish, making it less brittle and likely to chip. In 2015 Duke University published a study, revealing that all women tested had TPHP present in their bodies just 10 to 14 hours after applying nail polish. While the nail bed isn’t permeable, the cuticle is.

Senior scientist Johanna Congleton explained, “Nails aren’t permeable to most molecules, but TPHP could be absorbed into the cuticle or around the nail.” 

TPHP disrupts hormone-producing glands, and may cause reproductive and developmental problems. For that reason, the study calls to the alarming health risks in children, and teenagers’ use of nail polish.

7. Xylene

A solvent for other ingredients in nail polish, is a colourless liquid with a distinct odour. It serves to thin lacquer for easier application. Xylene is also present in paint, adhesives like glue, and gasoline. Inhalation of its off-gas depresses the central nervous system, inducing headaches, dizziness, and nausea. At higher concentrations, the gas may cause liver and kidney damage, and respiratory failure, and death.

8. Paraben

Used as preservatives across the cosmetics industry, parabens prevent bacterial and mould growth. Widely cited studies by Dr. Philippa Darbre in 2004 and 2012, validated that one or more parabens were present in 99% of breast tumour tissues tested. She stressed to Well + Good that, “Parabens are getting into the breast, and they are getting in in significant amounts.”

Dr. Darbre also established that parabens are likely carcinogens, meaning they can convert healthy cells into cancerous cells. Her findings are merely 4 years old, and FDA questions if there are safer alternatives to parabens on the market. But till then, the FDA currently deems parabens a work-in-progress.

Caryn recommends a clean, non-toxic manicure regime. For starters, get an 8-free organic base coat with moisturising and repairing properties, “You can mix products, but take note to have an organic base coat. It is the first contact with your nail.”

1. Apply one layer of an organic nail base coat. A base coat is necessary for smooth application. It also act as a protective layer from the colour pigments.

2. Apply your colour of choice, wait a minute between each layer. If the nail polish is sufficiently pigmented, two layers will be enough. An organic nail colour would be safest, otherwise you can mix up and use other products.

3. Top it off with a generous layer of quick-drying top coat. Rest your eyes for 3 minutes as the surface dries. And as with all traditional nail polishes, the top coat will take a couple of hours to cure completely.


COAT Colours is available here