The sharp acrid stench of chemicals is the first thing that strikes you as step through the unassuming glass door. Drills in hand they peer at you from behind white paper surgical masks, urging you towards an assembly line of seats. There are four in total- crammed behind cheap Formica tables; the only sound the steady mechanical rasp of files as they chisel away. Speaking in hushed tones, they glance furtively in your direction before a woman steps forward asking-‘do you want a full set or infill?’
We’ve all seen the signs emblazoned in our local high street advertising a full set of acrylic nails for twenty-five pounds but chances are these bargain basement beauty treatments could be putting your health at risk. With the average British woman spending £336 pounds a year on hair products, fake tan and make up it’s no wonder we go in search of pocket friendly manicures, but at what cost to your health? Low prices could be an indicator that the salon is in fact using products containing MMA or Methyl Methacrylate- described by the FDA as ‘poisonous and deleterious substance and should not be used in liquid acrylic monomer for nail enhancement products’ Banned in some American States, New Zealand and in London, the chemical is classified by EU directives under R37/38 ‘irritating to the respiratory system and skin’ and R43 ‘may cause sensitisation by skin contact’.
Commonly used for making dentures and flooring the porcelain like appearance it takes on makes it stiff and hardwearing and it’s this exact quality that poses the most risk. Birmingham City hospital estimated that six women a week are treated for problems relating to their nails and in the most serious cases the real nail is ripped out of the nail bed after getting caught in simple household accidents. MMA isn’t just a hazard to customers. Prolonged exposure to the fumes and dust created by excessive filing could cause asthma and breathing problems for the nail technician, and if absorbed by pregnant women through their cuticles it could harm the unborn foetus.
A safer EU approved alternative is Ethyl Methacrylate (EMA); it has a larger molecular structure that makes it harder for the body to absorb. Unlike MMA it has a ‘designed limitation on strength’ and if broken, does little or no damage to the nail plate.
For most women a perfectly manicured set of talons is a harmless beauty must have but according to the HABIA the government approved standards body (The Hair and Beauty Industry Association) the recent surge in high street nails salons means an increase in competition and makes them harder to regulate. Wendy Nixon Senior Business Development Manager for Habia said that although they set the codes of practice and produce guidance they have no power to see that they are met.
“Specific requirement for salons to register with their Local Authority in order to undertake activities exist, otherwise the general duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act and associated regulations made under the Act, apply to all workplace environments and thus hair and beauty salons are inspected as part of the local authority regime. The only difference in enforcement is where Local Authorities hold special treatment licenses, which create specific requirements for treatments. However other Local Authorities will enforce the same standards but will use the general duties under Health and Safety Act instead of the license conditions”.
With a reported 1,500 accredited salons in the UK I decided to visit one London Borough to see just how well their regulatory system was working and whether I could get a manicure using MMA. Brent Council in North West London claim they have never had to take away the license of a nail salon due to the illegal use of MMA.
Lemoy Paterson Team Leader for Brent Environmental health said that all the salons within Borough have been inspected and granted licenses because they are in fact using EMA-the safer alternative for acrylic nail extensions.
The best way to detect whether the monomer the salons were using was EMA or MMA is through a scientific analysis of the particles. In the absence of a laboratory I decided to contact an industry specialist and the find science free way of determining the difference between the products. Keeley Dennyschene the owner of Signature Nails in Didcot and one of the main campaigners calling for a nationwide ban on MMA said there are very clear tell tale signs. Aside from the strong chemical odour and the price, technicians have to use electric drills to file down the nails.
“The product does not adhere to the natural nail plate hence they will “itch”
the natural nail using a drill to ensure the product sticks. Sets of nails are completed in under an hour and no products on the desks are in labelled containers, everything is in unmarked ceramic containers.”
Armed with Keeleys advice I headed to the Amore hair and beauty salon on Kilburn High Road. A full set of nails cost me twenty pounds well under the thirty to forty pounds I had been advised they should cost. I watched as the used a rotating file to sand my seemingly healthy nails to an uneven grooved surface, before applying the nail tip and then the acrylic. The acrylic powder was stored in a small glass container and when I asked to see the box as I’d had an allergic reaction with a previous manicure I was told she didn’t know as her manager bought the products and they weren’t there. Just over an hour later I emerged into the April sunlight with my shiny new neon pink clad fingers nails. Aside from the assault on my nostrils the entire experience had been altogether rather pleasant and you can see why many unsuspecting customers return for an in-fill especially at the cheap and cheery price of thirteen pounds. Walking in to the salon you would have no reason to be alarmed, the wall is adorned with framed certificates showcasing the required qualifications and a beige licence headed with Brent Councils emblem showing they had passed the necessary inspections. So how could they possibly be using MMA?
Brent council say they have never actually caught a salon using the chemical but under Environmental Health’s regulations they only inspect the salons once every two years- when they have to review their licences. Even when this is done they don’t carry out any chemical analysis on the products but rely on Safety Data Sheets that that list the ingredients contained. But is this regulation enough, I had clearly noticed that the steps taken in my manicure reflected the use of MMA.
Paterson said despite the ban on MMA it is under the Local Authorities Act and they have no legislative powers to fine or inspect the businesses more than they currently do unless there has been a complaint, in which case they’ll up the ante to once a year.
“We can’t base anything on suspicions. I know they are a few salons and although there are definitive signs and we find the product we can’t do anything. If we have strong evidence we refuse to renew someone’s license.”
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