STEP into any nail and hair salon and, more often than not, you will be hit by the smell of glue, solvents, disinfectants and ammonia. And this "eww" factor is not just limited to the olfactory. Exposure to such chemicals may have effects that go beyond skin deep: In fact, a number of studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the US have examined possible links between nail technicians' work and health outcomes, such as respiratory, neurological, and musculoskeletal effects, as well as other health conditions.
But how much harm is there really in a lunchtime mani or root colour touch-up? While current scientific studies can be inconclusive, a growing number of consumers are not taking any risks when it comes to getting their beauty fix.
"The unmistakable chemical odour from nail polish comes from a cocktail of alcohol, solvents and other toxins which enable the polish to stick to the nail, give it a shine, and prevent it from chipping," explains Zi Sha, the owner of Auum, a nail salon in PasarBella at Turf City dedicated to more natural, less toxic treatments. "In addition, nail polish can be almost impossible to get off and is commonly presented in a bottle with a flammable symbol on the side. These should all serve as warning signs, and yet, we ignore them."
Rather than wait for conclusive data that reveals more disturbing information, the well-groomed set are seeking out polishes touting buzzwords such as "three- and five-free", whereby the biggest chemical offenders commonly found in nail colours are removed from their formulations. Add on the guilt factor of nail polish remnants on cotton balls or empty bottles ending up in the garbage followed by landfills, and one is almost tempted to keep one's digits au nauturel.
Ms Sha decided to source for niche, non-toxic brands such as Zoya, Deborah Lippmann, Butter LONDON, Priti NYC and Scotch Natural to cater to green beauty junkies. Furthermore, other products such as spa soaks, scrubs and massage oils are handmade from organic and natural ingredients in the salon by the staff.
Similarly, getting your hair dyed, permed, rebonded or even washed may also entail undesirable effects on your well-being. "Chemical treatments contain harsh ingredients that may cause allergy, skin irritation, hair breakage, or long-term damage," explains Yvonne Pay, marketing manager of A'Vinz. The company is a distributor of natural haircare products and owns Organic Hair Professional, a chain of six salons providing more natural haircare alternatives.
For example, ammonia - used to open the hair shaft for dye molecules to be absorbed, is not only pungent, it also often causes a stinging sensation to scalps; while almost all mainstream shower gels, shampoos and conditioners contain detergents and foaming agents which disrupt the cell membranes and cause flakiness or dryness for those with sensitive skin.
While Organic Hair Professional and Ecorganics, another natural hair salon on Upper Thomson, use ammonia-free hair dyes, they are unable to get eco-friendly products for all the styling formulations. "Unfortunately, right now there is no organic perm and rebonding solution in the market," says Crystalz Ong, purchaser and marketer for Ecorganic.
However, she offers a semi-straightening treatment that is a healthier version of the Brazillian Blowout, called Zerran Reallisse. Using plant extracts, it is a pure botanical product "that is suitable for vegans, and completely free of formaldehyde and harmful odours".
Often, folks who turn to more natural beauty treatments do so because of circumstances - for example, pregnant women or cancer patients or survivors who have undergone chemotherapy tend to be more sensitive to the effects of chemicals, including those found in hair products. But, as Ms Shah admits, it might take awhile before Singaporeans become full-fledged beauty greenies.
"Honestly, we haven't broken even since we started in June because the cost is a lot higher than running a regular nail salon," says the 25-year-old, who adds that 75 per cent of her clientele are expatriates.
"Some passers-by walk in and ask if we carry (popular nail colour brand) OPI nail polishes, and when we say we don't, they just leave without allowing us to explain why we don't."
And while Ms Shah charges $28 for a manicure, and Ecorganic's full colour job starts from $88 - prices that are similar to that of regular beauty treatments, there seems to be a perception that natural beauty services are more premium than mainstream counterparts.
"A good quality organic serum or cream goes for $50 to $100, which is comparable to products by any department store beauty brand," clarifies Helen Lien, founder of Pure Tincture, an organic skincare retailer and facialist. "Since it's not about paying a premium to go organic, I would say that it's about taking time to seek out trusted natural alternatives to their beauty regime."
PasarBella at The Grandstand Bukit Timah Tel: 6463 9713
FOR Zi Shah, the 25-year-old founder of Auum nail salon, high hygiene standards and non-toxic products should be a given at any nail spa. "Nail polish will never be absolutely free of chemicals - it's paint after all," adds Ms Shah matter-of-factly. "But you can significantly reduce your chemical exposure by choosing the right brands." The Australian-trained beautician limits the use of alcohol and acetone in the salon, and stays away from heavily perfumed or artificially coloured products. Because water-based, non-toxic polishes tend to chip faster than regular nail colours, Auum provides complimentary maintenance kits comprising cuticle oils and moisturisers, as well as buffers to get more mileage out of your mani. Besides its commitment to using the most natural products possible, Auum also uses disposable liners and single-use files and buffers - Ms Shah wields a nifty-looking stainless steel foot rasp by Italian brand Cuccio, which comes with disposable abrasive sheets. She reveals that certain experienced nail technicians she has hired left the company because of her stringent standards: All tools are sterilised in a medical-grade disinfectant through a seven-step process. "Once you've been to Auum, it's hard to ever step into a regular nail salon again," declares the bubbly entrepreneur.
The Adelphi #B1-10 Tel: 6337 6411
ALMOST nine years ago, when Helen Lien started Pure Tincture, the notion of organic skincare was still very much a novelty. "My sister was the catalyst behind the startup as she had very sensitive skin and, at the time, was expecting, while I was contemplating a career switch," says the organic beauty entrepreneur. Apart from selling products from niche organic brands such as the vegan, seaweed-based Osea line from the US; and Pai, a British brand specialising in potions for sensitive skin; Pure Tincture also provides pampering facials at its boutique. "The products used in our facials do not include detergents, parabens, fragrance, alcohol or petrochemicals, which do not agree with some skin types," explains Ms Lien.
Instead, the efficacious potions contain natural ingredients such as rosehips, chamomile and safe preservatives that are less harsh. Those sensitive to essential oils or fragrances can also opt for fragrance-free treatments. Its Osea Super Sensitive Facial, for example, is an indulgent treat involving massage techniques that help firm the skin, the use of rejuvenating essential oils, and an invigorating mask - essentially an algae that transforms into a gel when soaked in water, to calm inflammation, tighten pores and promote skin elasticity.
1 Thomson Ridge Tel: 6556 0521
Set up in 2011, by a husband-and-wife team, Ecorganics was founded due to its owners' shared passion for leading a healthy lifestyle. Hairstylist Eric Sun began his career in a regular hair salon and noticed how dry, chapped and red his hands became from prolonged exposure to the chemicals in hair treatment products, and even began to develop respiratory problems.
By chance, he found himself a job in an organic hair salon and witnessed first-hand how organic products helped his ailments. "First, the condition of his hands improved slowly and he fell ill less frequently, because the salon has no 'salon smell' at all," says his wife Crystalz Ong.
Ms Ong, on the other hand, suffered from sensitive skin from a young age. In 2006, she was involved in an accident, which left her with burns on her face, part of her scalp, neck, arms and legs. "After that accident, my sensitive skin got worse. I become allergic to more things and there were a lot of products that I could not use," said Ms Ong. "Hair dyes left me with an itchy and inflamed scalp - until I visited an organic salon next to my office, where I met Eric and became a firm follower of organic treatments."
The salon uses Simply Organic, a haircare range that does not contain ammonia, sodium laureth sulfate, parabens, silicone, petroleum or artificial fragrances. "We wouldn't say that our products are 100 per cent organic, but Simply Organic is definitely 80 to 93 per cent organic," adds Ms Ong. "Our treatment steps are the same, it's just that we use better products."
Organic Hair Professional
Six outlets including Orchard Central #03-15 Tel: 6554 2188
ONE of the first hair salons here to introduce the organic concept in 2007, the Organic Hair Professional chain came about to provide alternatives to harsh chemical treatments. It uses products by Taiwanese salon professional brand O'right, a green haircare company that not only creates natural and eco-friendly products, but also aims to reduce carbon emissions and uses certified organic ingredients, soy ink printing, biodegradable and recycled materials.
"By minimising the use of harsh ingredients and using more organic and natural ingredients, clients with sensitive scalp conditions are now able to have a complete colour service," says Yvonne Pay. "Our hair colours such as Nature's Colours from Italy are free from ammonia and parabens, and are specially formulated with natural extracts such as jojoba seed oil, and organic ingredients such as aloe leaf extract, olive oil and argan oil to nourish and invigorate the hair shaft."
While not entirely organic, the salon also uses perm lotions with lower ammonia content and a moisturising formula to leave hair shiny and elastic.
To counteract the disposal of non-biodegradable plastic packaging like shampoo bottles in landfills, O'Right has developed a patented Tree In A Bottle packaging.
Organic Hair Professional salons plant the empty biodegradable bottles that once contained haircare products, and which are embedded with plant seeds, into pots of soil displayed in the windows. The organic plastic packaging breaks down into a fertiliser for the plant that will eventually grow into a tree.
"Besides being able to see the benefits on themselves, that is, having a healthier mane of hair, customers also want to do their part for the environment by seeking out products that promise to protect our earth," adds Ms Pay.