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.MORE: Six Signs of a Sketchy Nail SalonAnd 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.MORE: 3-free and 4-free nail polish, explained “Companies are saying they’re taking the harmful chemicals out—formaldehyde, toluene and DBP—but there is no pre-market safety assessment system to verify if that’s true,” says Liou. “Essentially, the industry polices themselves.”It’s this nail industry “he-said, she-said” along with the fact that cosmetic companies aren’t required to get the green light on safety from the FDA, and most nail brands don’t list ingredients on their bottles like say, shampoo, that has many organizations pushing for the Safe Cosmetics Act.This bill would demand pre-market safety assessments of all personal care products—not just nail polish. (As of right now, the Safe Cosmetics Act is expected to pass early next year.)MORE: The Safe Cosmetics Act and what it means for your makeup bagAccording to Cora Roelofs, an occupational health researcher at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who has studied the long-term effects nail chemicals and fumes have on salon workers, many report rashes on their cheeks and hands—possibly as a result of sensitization (like getting an allergy) to acrylic compounds such as ethyl methacrylate, the main ingredient in artificial nail liquid—but all solvents such as isopropyl alcohol as well as acetone can cause rashes just by taking the natural protective oils out of skin. She also adds that nail technicians experience an abundance of respiratory problems including coughing, nose, throat and lung irritation, asthma and wheezing.Could second-hand nail service fumes be the new second-hand smoke? Clearly, the salon workers exposed to hazardous chemicals and fumes 10 hours a day are at the most risk, but a weekly half-hour polish pit-stop can add up. “A salon might be using 3 and 4-free brands, but there are still so many different kinds of solvents in formulas as well as a lack of fresh air and a lot of dust,” says Roelofs.According to the experts interviewed, Burdine’s black eye is definitely not the norm, however, doctors agree that allergic reactions from nail products and services are not only possible, they’re common. “Many people are allergic to the chemicals in acrylic nails,” says D’Anne Kleinsmith, M.D., a dermatologist in West Bloomfield, Michigan. “The allergies can arise from polymers in the nails themselves, or the gel and glue, which might be laced with poisonous methyl methacrylate liquid monomers (MMA). Formaldehyde in nail hardeners and polish as well as acetone fumes can also cause problems. These chemicals can cause contact dermatitis, where the skin right around or underneath the nail can get red, itchy or scaly.”MORE: The best non-toxic nail polishesBut eyes are also at risk. “The eyes are a sensitive, exposed organ,” says Elise Brisco, M.D., from the California Optometric Assocation and founder of the Rehabilitative Vision Clinic at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “Bacteria, viruses, allergies, pollen and chemicals all stick to the wet, mucous-y surface which is very absorbent—and what’s scary is that the eye is essentially an extension of the brain.” Brisco suggests that if you have any pain in or around your eyes, blurred vision, stinging, swelling or redness for more than a few hours after leaving a nail salon, to see your doctor.Now, take a deep (fume-free) breath: Experts insist that you don’t have to ditch your weekly mani and succumb to hiding your bare, chipped nails in shame: “Common sense and precaution says that if it’s not necessary to be exposed to toxic chemicals (and it’s hard to imagine when it is necessary) then these chemicals should not be in products at all,” says Roelofs. “But in the mean time, choose a well-ventilated salon if you’re concerned.”QUIZ: How Healthy Does Your Skin Look? Also, be aware of what products the salon you’re frequenting is using. “I’ve seen a tremendous change in the nail industry,” says Jin Soon Choi, a manicurist for 20 years and owner of Jin Soon Nail Salon in New York City. “The old style strong-fumed acrylic is almost gone, non-acetone nail polish remover is ubiquitous and there are amazing 3 and 4-free polishes.”And of course ladies, (you gotta) fight for your right (to a healthy manicure). Take action at safecosmetics.org.