Despite my never-ending obsession with moisturiser, my compulsion to collect every nude lipstick I get my hands on, and my constantly-expanding encyclopedic knowledge on all things hair-related, there’s one beauty topic that I have absolutely no interest in, and that’s everything to do with the nails.
I keep my nails trimmed as short as possible, and the occasional layer of hand cream is all the notice I give my digits. Nail polish gives me no pleasure, and the idea of sitting for an hour, immobilised and unable to use my hands while my fingers are being painted, sounds like a colossal waste of time. Being an avid home cook with a touch of housework OCD, no manicure has lasted longer than a day before a smudge or chip inevitably appears.
Then there’s the whole toxic fume-emitting, chemical-laden part of it that I abhor. Commercial nail polishes typically contain what scientists call the “toxic trio”: dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene and formaldehyde. Constant exposure to these toxins can lead to, amongst other things, birth defects in pregnant women and cancer. An additional chemical, triphenyl phosphate (TPP), is a hormone disruptor and a study led by Duke University and the Environmental Working Group has concluded that the human body can actually absorb it through nail polish.
But that’s old-school polish, the nail-obsessed cry. What about gel manicures?
It turns out that the fuss-free, long-lasting alternative beloved by celebrities and busy women alike isn’t without its health risk. A 2009 article in Archives of Dermatology (now renamed as JAMA Dermatology), a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association, cited two cases of women who developed skin cancer on the backs of their hands, ostensibly caused by repeated exposure to UV lamps used to cure the gel nails. Additionally, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), a common ingredient in commercial gel polish, is a carcinogen – yikes!
However, risky as it is for manicure-lovers, the biggest dangers are faced by the manicurists themselves, who have to spend hours every single day handling the polishes and inhaling the fumes. That’s what motivated 29-year-old Norfazimah to launch Auum, Singapore’s first toxin-free and vegan nail spa, four years ago in 2013, where I found myself getting my first manicure in years.
“When I was pregnant, I was working at a nail bar and it was very difficult inhaling all those toxic fumes while expecting,” Norfazimah tells me while settling me into a plush nook at the Sofitel So Spa in Sentosa, where Auum is based out of. “I started to have eczema. No matter which salon I worked out at, it was all the same in Singapore – they all carried the commercial polishes, and the protocols were the same.”
In 2012, Norfazimah took a year-long break from work and went to Australia to further her education in beauty, where she learned about the Environment Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards for nail salons in the US and Australia, which ensured a high level of hygiene and safety. Inspired, she returned and started Auum, initially as a pop-up salon at Pasarbella, a farmer’s market, then as a concierge service, before finally finding a home at Sofitel So Spa.
“Everything we use is non-toxic, eco-friendly, cruelty-free and vegan,” she continues. “Every product we carry has to be tested for a month on me or on my family and friends. (Our manicures) are safe for children, cancer patients, pregnant moms and those with sensitive skin.”
That means a near-fanatical observance of three things: hygiene, non-toxicity, and customer service. Almost everything, including the nail files and towels, is disposable and single-use only. Other tools, Norfazimah says, are disinfected with hospital grade disinfectants. Instead of having to soak my nails in a bowl, my hands were spritzed with a cuticle-softening blend of soy, eucalyptus and coconut oil, eliminating the need to use any water. “We’re eco-friendly, too,” she explains. I glance at the disposable towel resting under my hands, and Norfazimah adds: “I chose that because it’s fully biodegradable.”
The manicure I am receiving is the Eco-essential Manicure with Gel, which includes shaping, cuticle grooming, and gel polish. True to Norfazimah’s second promise, Auum only carries three- or four-free polishes: Meaning, they are free from the main toxins found in commercial brands. In particular, the brand she uses for me, NCLA (Nail Couture Los Angeles), is seven-free: no DBP, toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, TPP and xylene.
Instead of a conventional UV lamp, Norfazimah cures my nails with an LED lamp, which isn’t just friendlier for the skin, but takes less time. “With UV light, it takes up to three minutes to cure,” she explains. “For LED, it only takes between 10 to 60 seconds, depending on the coat."
Norfazimah's outdoor manicure station at So Spa Sofitel.
The entire manicure took less than an hour, and I didn’t have to wait around for the polish to dry fully – my nails were pretty and glossy, and fully functional immediately after. The real test came after, and I’m happy to report that my manicure stayed as pristine and fresh as the first day even after 10 days of enthusiastic housekeeping, and only finally betrayed a tiny chip on the 11th.
I have to admit, seeing my nails all painted and shaped did give my heart a little flutter. And now that there’s a safer, healthier option, I just might be a nail convert, after all.
T Singapore is giving away 10 complimentary Eco Essential Mani Pedi at AUUM – The Honest Nail Spa, worth S$178 each.
To be eligible, simply follow these steps:
1. Follow @TSingapore Instagram account
2. Like the Eco Essential Mani Pedi photo, and tag 2 friends.
Contest runs till September 30. Winners will be chosen at random, and notified via Instagram DM.
Terms & Conditions apply.
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