Step into any nail or hair salon and, more often than not, you will be hit by the smell of glue, solvents, disinfectants and ammonia.
Exposure to such chemicals may have effects that are more than skin-deep: A number of studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the United States 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 in a lunchtime manicure or root-colour touch-up, really? 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.
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", meaning the biggest chemical offenders commonly found in nail colours are removed from their formulations.
Add 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 naturel.
Similarly, getting your hair dyed, permed, rebonded or even washed may entail undesirable effects on your well-being.
For example, ammonia - used to open the hair shaft for dye molecules to be absorbed - is not only pungent, but also often causes a stinging sensation on scalps; while almost all mainstream shower gels, shampoos and conditioners contain detergents and foaming agents that disrupt cell membranes, and cause flakiness or dryness for those with sensitive skin.
"A good-quality organic serum or cream goes for $50 to $100, which is comparable to products by any department-store beauty brand," said Ms 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 the time to seek out trusted natural alternatives to your beauty regime," she added.
PasarBella at The Grandstand Bukit Timah; 6463-9713
For Ms Zi Shah, 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," said Ms Shah, 25. "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 steers clear of 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.
Aside from its commitment to using the most natural products possible, Auum 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.
"Once you've been to Auum, it's hard to step into a regular nail salon again," the bubbly entrepreneur declared.
The Adelphi #B1-10; 6337-6411
Almost nine years ago, when Ms Lien started Pure Tincture, the notion of organic skincare was very much a novelty.
"My sister was the catalyst for the start-up. She had very sensitive skin and was expecting at the time, while I was contemplating a career switch," said 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 provides 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," she explained.
1 Thomson Ridge; 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," said his wife, Ms Crystalz Ong.
The salon uses Simply Organic, a haircare range that does not contain ammonia, sodium laureth sulphate, 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," she added. "Our treatment steps are the same, it's just that we use better products."
Organic Hair Professional
Six outlets, including Orchard Central #03-15; 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.
While not entirely organic, the salon uses perm lotions with lower ammonia content and a moisturising formula to leave hair shiny and elastic.
To cut down on the disposal of non-biodegradable plastic packaging - like shampoo bottles - in landfills, O'Right developed the patented Tree In A Bottle packaging.
Organic Hair Professional salons place empty biodegradable bottles - which had contained haircare products and are embedded with plant seeds - into pots of soil displayed in the windows. The organic-plastic packaging breaks down into fertiliser for the plant, which will eventually grow into a tree.
This article by The Business Times was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.
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