Picture this: seventh grade Natalie, deep in her emo phase of greasy hair, eye-rolling, and listening to Simple Plan on repeat. My diary reveals a stunning literary gem: a poem written by yours truly called, “I wear black nail polish to feel things” that recounted how I stole lipstick from the corner store (I didn’t) because my family didn’t understand me. Pubescent emotions aside, nail polish has long been one of my favorite fashion accessories. So, of course, I was delighted when my team at LOLA nominated me to try a natural nail salon.

I’d never considered what was in my nail polish (though maybe the chemical scent should have tipped me off that it wasn’t anything good for me, my lungs, or the environment), so to prepare for my inaugural natural mani, I started with some research on the ingredients in traditional polishes and boy did I realize that I had a lot to learn. Most traditional nail polishes include the “toxic trio”: toluene, which gives nail polish its smooth finish, formaldehyde, used as a preservative and hardener, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which increases a polish’s flexibility and shine. Long-term exposure to these toxins has been linked to a scary array of adverse health effects from certain cancers to birth defects. I don’t know about you, but having perfectly mani’ed hands doesn’t seem worth the risk!

Even more confusing, for those of us who are already looking out for these three chemicals, it turns out you can’t always trust polishes that are labeled as “3-free.” In 2012, the California EPA released a report on nail polishes that claimed to be free of the “toxic-trio.” But 5 of the 7 polishes tested actually contained these toxins. The more I researched, the more I cringed at how many years I spent happily inhaling the fumes of my CVS nail polishes or accidentally ingesting these harmful chemicals when I inevitably bit my nails.

If you thought that using a natural polish would restrict your color choices, you’d be wrong.

Here’s where natural nail salons like pH7 come in. Located in Brooklyn, pH7 offers a “non-conventional and exclusive nail salon experience using products that are carcinogen-free” while “utilizing ethical techniques and products.” The first thing I noticed about pH7 was the lack of smell when I walked in. Odd, right? You know what I’m talking about — that classic nail salon smell: the blend of nail polish, acetone, and sterilizing agents that slaps you in the face when you walk into your corner salon for a quick mani.

It wasn’t just the air that was clean and crisp. The minimalist decor featured pristine white walls accented with hanging naked lightbulbs, succulent terrariums, beautiful wooden chairs and tables for manicures, and plush armchairs with wicker footstools for pedicures. The studio had a wide selection of natural beauty products for sale, many of them made in Brooklyn, and an enormous wall of colors to choose from; if you thought that using a natural polish would restrict your color choices, you’d be wrong.

For my “essential basic” manicure, I chose a blue-grey polish from Zoya. (Side note: Zoya was one of the first brands to get rid of the toxic trio as well as camphor and formaldehyde resin in their polishes.) Krystal, my nail tech, started out by wiping down my finger nails with acetone-free nail polish remover, and then cut, filed, buffed the nails as usual and ended with a soak in soap and warm water.

Before we got to the polishing, she drizzled grape seed oil (high in vitamin E) on my cuticles and massaged my hands with a sage lemongrass lotion by Apotheke, a Brooklyn-based brand that specializes in natural, handmade cosmetics. After a hot towel wipe, the manicure process itself was pretty standard. Once painted, she finished off my manicure with Qtica, a liquid drying accelerator made by Art of Beauty. Each manicure is followed by a quick shoulder massage, leaving you in a state of complete bliss as you wait for your chemical-free polish to dry.

Wondering about the price tag? A basic manicure will run you $18 and a basic pedicure costs $30, not a huge premium to my usual salon costs. My manicure lasted unchipped for about a week and a half (and that’s with a full week of typing at work!). This was a nice surprise, as I assumed my natural manicure would only last a couple of days. When I took my nail polish off this week, my nails felt a lot stronger and didn’t break as easily as they sometimes do after a regular manicure.

Going forward, I’m definitely making the switch to natural nail salons and polishes. I left pH7 feeling rejuvenated and relaxed, and am excited to have a healthier option for future manis. Pardon the pun, but pH7 nailed it.

Natalie is the office manager and executive assistant for LOLA. Outside of talking tampons and periods, she enjoys drinking cabernet sauvignon, watching romantic comedies with a strong female lead, and reading about Scotland.

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