Last Friday there was an article on Radio 4’s Today programme that caught my attention. It talked about the risks of acrylates in nail polishes and reactions to them. Dermatologists are concerned. Products from China are a problem. It all sounded pretty scary. As is usually the case, the Daily Mail weighed in.
Scare stories like this are a mainstay of tabloid journalism. There is really nothing like a health hazard associated with a popular cosmetic product to provoke interest, newspaper sales and clicks. All of which is great, unless you happen to be a company that sells those products. How do you cope with this situation?
Frankly, an exercise in damage limitation is about all you can do. Fear is a powerful emotion, and once people are frightened there is not a great deal you can do about it.
But first of all let’s have a look at what the story is actually about. A scare story doesn’t need to have anything you should actually be scared of. There is nothing wrong with talcum powder for example. It doesn’t even need to be new – lead in lipstick comes around as regularly as Halley’s Comet. In this case, the risk is real but has been greatly exaggerated. Polymethacrylate polymers used in nail varnishes are not intrinsically dangerous, and have been used for decades without issues.
Polymers don’t penetrate either the skin or the nail because of their size. They are large molecules made of long chains of small molecules linked together. These small molecules are called monomers. Poymethacrylate is polymerised methacrylic acid. This is something that very much can penetrate the skin or nails and which can cause skin reactions if it does. Methacrylic acid isn’t the only monomer – there is a family of similar chemicals that can be polymerised. HEMA is the best known and most widely used. Polymer chemists have a lot of choice of monomers, and are skilled in using them to create a wide range of polymers that solve all sorts of problems including creating the optimum nail varnish.
The problem that can arise with gel polishes is that the polymer is created on the nail itself. A coating is painted onto the nail and UV light is used to initiate the reaction. Nail technicians often call this process curing. So during the curing process the end user is briefly exposed to the risk of an irritating material. It isn’t a high risk. People are using gel nail polishes all the time without any issues. But if the product isn’t applied carefully, or if the UV lamp isn’t working properly then it is possible for the monomer to migrate from the nail to the skin. There it can be very irritating causing inflammation and possibly even damaging the nail itself.
This is a traumatic enough event. But in some cases, it might be worse. In addition to being irritating the monomers can also lead to the development of allergies. That’s never good. But it just might be even worse. Sometimes an allergic reaction to a monomer could in theory lead to sensitivity to polymers derived from that monomer.
Now while all these risks are real, none of them are very likely. Most people who handle these materials handle them appropriately. Most skin reactions aren’t that serious. Allergies only affect a mercifully small number of people. As to developing an allergy to related polymers – I haven’t found any reports of this actually happening. It would however be a serious problem to have as it would make it impossible to use many dental adhesives and possibly even things like artificial hips.
There is one further risk. Poorly formulated or badly made products can make the risk of monomer exposure much higher. This is not a great risk. Nobody wants to make bad products, and it isn’t very profitable either. But it is possible that poor products can get into the supply chain. I don’t think it is a big part of the problem, but it is the source that interests people. The media love a villain. Chemicals with long names are easy to smear and they can’t sue. And companies love to portray their competition as villains. Getting people to avoid products from China is popular with people who sell products that don’t come from China. In reality, mistakes can be made anywhere. And while there are Chinese suppliers whose quality is not great, there are plenty of manufacturers there whose products are as good as anyone else’s.
But the reality is that any suggestion of risk is going to scare consumers. And while the risks of gel nail polish are very low, nobody needs to use nail products so logically even a very low risk is hard to justify.
So what should a manufacturer or distributor of nail gel polish do? I’d suggest the following plan –
- Acknowledge the issue: Proactively contact customers and let them know that you know what is going on and let them know what you are doing or plan to do about it.
- Make sure you understand the issues: hopefully the notes above will help with that. The last thing you want to do is say something that isn’t factually correct. Factual errors are easy to make, and we all make them. But that doesn’t stop mistakes destroying credibility.
- Consider reformulating, relabelling and repackaging the product. If there is a way to make the product safer for people using it, now would be a good time to identify and implement it. And communicate what you are doing. Steps as simple as reducing the size of the pack or even how quickly the product comes out of the pack can have a real impact on safe handling.
HEMA is often fingered as a problem in gel nail polishes – and it certainly does have the potential to be irritating. Coming up with a HEMA free version of your product is something to consider. Do bear in mind though that close analogues like HPMA are just as likely to be problematic. You might be able to truthfully claim HEMA free, but you won’t actually be making your products safer. We’ve been through this before with parabens of course. Paraben free cosmetics are no safer than those containing parabens, but parabens are so demonised that companies don’t really have any choice but to avoid them. I don’t know if that is the case with HEMA yet. You’ll have to make your own judgement on that.
- Engage with customers: The company should engage with its customers through various channels, including social media, email, and customer service hotlines. The aim is to listen to their concerns, provide them with accurate information, and answer any questions they may have. If possible use this as a way of educating customers on the safe use of nail gel polishes.
- Collaborate with regulatory bodies: make it clear that you are not only willing to talk to officials about this – you welcome the chance to do so. You believe you are already doing the right thing but you are happy to make sure.
- Look at your company operating manual and make sure it is suitable for this kind of situation. If you have an ethical policy, make sure it deals with consumer safety. If it doesn’t, change it so it does. All your communications need to reflect your ethics, and you are in a better position to do so if you have them written down. Ideally you should be able to simply copy and paste them into communications.
Another part of the operating manual to look at is how you handle feedback from customers. You should already have records of complaints and a procedure for notifying serious adverse events, that being a legal requirement.
Ideally you should be monitoring these reports and be prepared to investigate and take action when they indicate that an issue might be arising. If you aren’t doing this, now is a good time start. If you are doing it, now is a good time to review your procedure and update your manual if necessary. You want to be able to say honestly and to demonstrate that ‘we continually review and act on feedback we receive from end users’.
- Something that in my experience very few cosmetic companies have is a recall procedure. To be honest, it is not something that many cosmetic companies are ever going to need. Cosmetics must be about the safest category of fast moving consumer goods. And in this case, I don’t think that there will be any stock that needs to be withdrawn. But being able to withdraw your products quickly and efficiently should the need to arise is something that would stand you in good stead. For comparison, pharma companies often have annual test runs of their withdrawl procedures.
And above all, keep calm. If you are doing things right, you can’t do any more than that. The media will soon move on to the next scare story and if your products are safe and work well your consumers will stick with them. If they aren’t – well that was a problem before the Daily Mail got involved.