That’s exactly what happened to Brooke Burdine after she popped into her local nail salon for her weekly manicure.
“The next morning my boyfriend looked at me and said ‘You look like you got punched in the face,” says the 25-year-old marketing exec in New York City, who speed dialed her dermatologist. “The skin around my eyes was reddish-black, and also dry, irritated and itchy.”
The diagnosis: an allergic shiner. This not-so-common allergic reaction occurs when blood around the eyes is unable to drain so it stays put and causes the appearance of a bar-fight-style black eye.
Usually it’s from an out-of-control pollen count that causes sinuses to swell, not from getting your nails done. “The doctor asked me what new products I was using—cleanser, eye cream, makeup, detergent—and I couldn’t think of anything in my routine that I’d changed,” Burdine says. “But the possibilities seemed endless because he also explained that I could not be allergic to something and then develop an allergy overnight.”
After discussing a laundry list of suspects, Burdine’s doctor glanced at her freshly painted nails and noted that he has a lot of women come in because of allergic reactions to polish, which are laced with potentially toxic chemicals including formaldehyde.
And since Burdine wears contacts and is often touching her eyes, the polish could be the culprit. “That’s when I realized that although I’ve always gone to the same salon and use the same brand of polish, that time I grabbed one from a company I’ve never used before,” she says. Her doctor told her to take the polish off asap and apply Desonide, a prescription steroid cream, around her eyes to reduce the swelling in that area. “In two days I was back to normal,” she says.
According to Julia Liou, cofounder of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, a public-advocacy group for salon worker health and safety, Brooke isn’t alone. The fight for safe nail practices and products for both technicians and customers is crucial because of a slew of health hazards—sure, a freaky black eye is one, but extreme medical conditions such as reproductive issues and cancer may also be real concerns.
Although the dangers of many chemicals used in nail products (including remover, base and top coat as well as polish) are proven and many brands are going 3 and 4-free, experts say there’s still good reason to think twice before test-driving a neon pink half-moon manicure.
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