Ever since Gigi Hadid debuted her $2,000 chrome and crystal manicure at the 2016 Met Gala (an effect created sans polish by manicurist Mar y Sol in collaboration with KISS), mirror nails have exploded. In fact, a quick search of “mirror nails” on YouTube or Instagram results in over 200,000 hits. While the technique—which involves painting nails with two coats of gel polish (usually black), layering on a tack-free topcoat, buffing in the power, applying another layer of clear topcoat, and curing it with UV light—isn’t necessarily new (renowned polish pro Marian Newman says it’s “been around for ages”), everyone from celebs to bloggers to industry insiders have jumped on the reflective bandwagon. “The obsession has now extended to other similar effects with evocative names such as ‘unicorn,’” adds Newman, who spotted one nail art enthusiast going so far as to use pigments intended for car paint to achieve a “duo chrome” finish. (For the record: Your nails should not be painted with the same chemicals as a car.) Manicurist Julie Kandalec even recently came across what’s she’s affectionately dubbed “sunglass nails” (because they look like Ray-Bans) in Seoul. And online retailers are rushing to meet the demand and, as Newman notes, “make a fast buck.” But at what cost to trend-driven consumers eager to get their hands on the goods?
Since the majority of us can’t afford Hadid’s mani that costs as much as mortgage payment, many retailers are selling DIY kits for as little as $10 featuring aluminum powder. And like most things that sound too good to be true, this discount polish job probably is. “Aluminum is approved only in certain circumstances, which is definitely not in its pure powder form,” explains Newman, who still questions the safety of aluminum (a fact continually debated by many who believe it to be a cancer-causing ingredient—a link that has yet to be scientifically proven). “There have been suppliers who buy aluminum powder from the Far East, decant it into pots, and sell it for extortionate amounts. Pure aluminum powder is easy to buy and is very cheap but it is toxic.” According to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, aluminum powder has reportedly been linked to cancer, allergens and neurotoxicity. And while aluminum powder is regulated by the FDA and approved as safe when used as coloring in certain cosmetics (for example, it may be used in eyeshadows, but not lipsticks) many people question whether the same powder used in fireworks and explosives is truly safe enough to apply directly onto the body.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, says that a “significant amount of aluminum exposure is needed to experience toxicity” and “absorption of aluminum from application of products on the skin is minimal, so application to the nails would be even lower.” However, applying the powder (done with a tool that looks a lot like the sponge included most eyeshadow palettes) often causes particles to fly into the air, which in turn are “being breathed in and ingested by the technician and their clients unless there is a very robust extraction system in use,” adds Newman. And a study by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (a committee within the European Union dedicated to screening non-food consumer products and services) found that when administered orally to rats, aluminum poses various risks that worsen with increased exposure. There was also Buddy Ebsen (the actor originally hired to play the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz) who almost died after aluminum dust in his makeup caused an infection or allergic reaction in his lungs.
So how can you get in on the trend without compromising your health? Start by going to a nail technician you know and trust to use non-toxic pigments (of which there are many). Newman recommends Lecenté because of their “stringent cosmetic approval” and Wildflowers Nail Academy who has “put a lot of effort into providing a correct SDS [safety data sheet].” Nail wraps, like those from Minx or Jamberry, are great options for those that don’t want to monkey around with UV gel polish and powder. But if you are still adamant about executing the look at home, try the technique MAC Senior Artist Keri Blair employed backstage at both Desigual and Giamba that doesn’t require gel: “What I figured out through some research and trial and error is that you can use a vegan or water-based topcoat as your barrier [over regular nail polish], let it dry for exactly five minutes—I set a timer—and then gingerly buff [Wildflowers] holographic powder into the nail.” To seal it in, she uses a thin, high-gloss varnish. Though Blair can’t speak to the manicure’s longevity, when the light hits your nails “it looks like they’re on fire.” And at Kenzo, manicurist Naomi Yasuda dabbed Inglot Cosmetics Face and Body Sparkles in 55 over black polish just before it completely dried for a quick hit of shimmery, disco-inspired flair. If it’s good enough for the runway, it’s good enough for us. Even better: You won’t suffer the fate of the first Tin Man.