Ever heard of halal nail polish? As an expert on all things hair, skin, and nails, I was dismayed when I walked into my local nail salon and saw this new category of nail polish I’d never heard of before. About 10 halal nail polishes were available in an array of beautiful colors. This nail salon was already branded as “nontoxic,” carrying only “8-free” nail polishes, vegan, and cruelty-free body and cleaning products – as well as no acrylics or UV light devices used for drying manicured nails or processing gel nails. With the salon already providing 8-free nail polishes, what was the difference between those and halal nail polishes?

As I did my Google search while sitting in the salon chair, I got the answer both from salon employees and the Internet, and also found several other brands of halal nail polishes sold on Amazon.

The main ingredient in traditional nail lacquer is nitrocellulose, a mixture of an indigestible plant fiber. Once used for gunpowder and blast mining in the 19th century, today, nitrocellulose is used for many purposes for holding materials together, such as photography film, and diagnostic tests that involve antigen-antibody binding, such as pregnancy tests. In a bottle of traditional nail polish, nitrocellulose is dissolved in a chemical solvent (typically ethyl acetate), along with pigment colors and plasticizers. The solvent quickly evaporates and is what gives nail polish its chemical smell. Once painted on the nail, the solvent gradually evaporates away entirely and the nitrocellulose is left behind, drying into a solid film on the nail. The same solvent molecule is in nonacetone nail polish remover, which simply redissolves the nitrocellulose back into a liquid so it can be wiped off.

Some nail polish may also include “pearl essence” to give a shiny look, like the silvery iridescence of fish scales. In fact, these polishes have contained ground up iridescent fish scales, but because of overfishing and cost, cheaper mineral alternatives are now more commonly used to give this shiny appearance.

Traditional nail polish contains tight molecular bonds that are impermeable to air and water. The tight bonds create fewer interstitial spaces for water to pass through. Nail polishes with polymer blends that help them withstand or make them more impermeable to water often chip less quickly and stay shinier longer.

While nail polishes are generally deemed safe, newer categories of 3-, 5-, or 8-free nail polishes containing fewer or different ingredients to preserve the product or give it it’s finish have been developed because of health concerns over some ingredients, for both users and cosmetologists. The 8-free nail polish does not contain dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, parabens, or xylene. Three-, 5-, or 8- free doesn’t always mean that the lacquer has fewer chemicals; it may have alternative ingredients that also warrant study comparison to traditional ingredients.

Halal nail polish is in another category of “breathable nail polish,” which is not purely a function of the ingredient or lack of ingredients, but has to do with the way it is formulated. Compared with the tight molecular bonds of traditional nail polish, “breathable” polishes have a more staggered structure, which allows air and water molecules to pass through the polish. Halal nail polish is often free of the same ingredients as 8-free polishes, and some brands are even 13-free, animal product free, and do not require a base or top coat, but may also contain ingredients like bis (glycidoxyphenyl) propane/bisaminomethylnorbornae. Those ingredients are not typically used in traditional nail polish and may play a role in the unique staggered structure allowing air and water to pass through the polish. Halal nail polish may not last as long on nails as does traditional nail polish, usually a few days to a week.

The purpose of halal nail polish is to make it more breathable during washing for Islamic prayer. In the past, some Islamic women would not wear nail polish because it is not porous, and so would interfere with wudu or ablution, the Islamic tradition of washing parts of the body before prayer. Halal translates to what is permissible and is most often associated with diet and procuring of meat. While the custom is not the same, the purpose is analogous to kosher preparation of foods in Judaism and dietary traditions in Hinduism. Having the opportunity to learn about this nail polish has been an interesting way to learn more about how different traditions, cultures, and faith affect skin and nail care.

Our nails are circulating breathing structures, with our nail plates being appendages over our nail beds with a rich pulse and blood supply. The main oxygen supply to the ends of our digits comes from our blood supply, not via oxygen through the nail plate, but wearing nail polish continuously can affect our nails. Oxygen saturation is detected through the end of our digits and nails when vital signs are being checked (less so when nail polish is present). As a continual wearer of nail polish for over 30 years, I can personally attest to certain types of onychodystrophy (white spots and discoloration on toe nails) from overuse of dark nail polish colors. Taking a break from polish and using these more “breathable” polishes could also potentially be a solution to this common complaint of nonfungal onychodystrophy.

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