If you like to paint your nails, but are part of the drugstore polish-wearing masses, you might not be familiar with the vibrant online scene of small-batch cosmetics producers, or “indie beauty” businesses. The mini-industry drew outside attention this week when use of one brand of polish was linked to some scary and painful problems in customers’ nails.
The brand is Mentality Nail Polish, a company out of California that sells some lovely colors and beautiful glitters. Customers and testers/models (“swatchers”) complained of some unusual things happening after they put on the polish. Some reported their fingertips tingling. Others reported pain and their nails separating from their fingertips and scabbing.
You can see some of the results for yourself: people claiming damage from Mentality’s products posted photos of the damage to Instagram. We will spare you from including them in the body of the post. #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5.
“I assumed I was overusing chemicals like acetone. Or having skin reactions to foods,” wrote the first person known to have a reaction to polishes from Mentality, Amy McMaster. She was one of their swatchers, meaning she was one of the first to try new polishes. “Really, I began to suspect nearly everything except my nail polish. When this was going on, I could find NO one else having the same issues with their nails.”
If your nails look like this, you should seek medical attention, since nails that are discolored and falling off can indicate an annoying but treatable fungal infection. It’s hard to contaminate nail polish with fungus, though, and fungus doesn’t cause one’s fingertips to tingle.
However, the important questions were: why did it happen, and is indie nail polish safe to use? Here’s the problem with the cosmetics industry: companies aren’t required to test their products, but they are responsible for ensuring that their products don’t harm customers.
Ingredients don’t necessarily have to be approved by the FDA, either, unless they’re color additives. Even then, they must be approved for a given purpose: a dye that works in, say, a shampoo that you rinse out of your hair wouldn’t work for a lip gloss that the user wears for hours and could potentially ingest.
For big companies, this means testing products on someone to prevent harming their customers. In response to questions from Consumerist, the company’s owner indicated that this means… wearing his own polishes. “I have used the TCR/Kolortek pigments for years now. I have been wearing these colors for years, on my own nails and skin,” the owner told us in an e-mail.
Mentality admitted on its Facebook page that there were problems with some of their products due to a bad batch of the clear base into which polish-makers mix pigments and glitter to make the finished product. They offered refunds and replacements for polishes from the bad batch…until they didn’t.
On Sunday, they posted:
Important: Due to a massive surge in requests this weekend for remakes of polish made in the Arminex base, we unfortunately will no longer be able to grant any further remake requests or process any further refunds. We have reached a physical and financial limit.
That’s what liability insurance is supposed to be for. In statements to media outlets and on Facebook, representatives of Mentality suggested different possibilities for what might be causing customers’ problems, all of which involved the base, produced by a company called Arminex.
Consumerist contacted Arminex by phone and left a message. They didn’t get back to us, but the answer to our questions came a few hours later when the company issued a cease and desist order to Mentality, asking that they stop publicly blaming the supplier when laboratory results on the finished polishes aren’t back yet. Mentality posted the letter on their Facebook page, which is the exact opposite of how you’re supposed to react to a cease and desist letter.
That’s where things stand now: the company says that it has sent off samples for testing, and is waiting for them to come back. Yet what should you do if you can’t resist a polish from a small, one-person company?
This is all kind of scary, but don’t let it scare you away from some of the beautiful and interesting nail polishes out there from small sellers. Fans of the indie polish scene point out that the situation with Mentality is an anomaly, and that most companies use combinations of ingredients that are already proven safe.
For as long as there’s been an active online community of people making, sampling, and chatting about polishes made by tiny manufacturers, beauty blogger Kirby Hartline told Consumerist, this is the first time something like this has happened. “99.9% of brands buy pre-mixed nail polish base from reputable companies that provide [material safety data] sheets and batch quality testing,” she explains. Polish-makers then add their own colors and glitters to this existing, pre-tested base. The color combinations might be original, but the formulas themselves are safe. If you want to sell more nail polish to people, it’s unwise to make their nails fall off.
One way to screen polish brands ahead of time is to browse the very active communities of Instagram posters and bloggers, and find at least one whose reviews and opinions you respect and whose interests align with yours, and read up. “Finding a blogger whose opinion and reviews you can trust will take you far in your quest to purchase from brands with unique and high quality nail polish,” blogger Hartline advises. She also points out that price is one factor to pay attention to: not out of snobbery, but because low prices may indicate cut corners or other problems.
However, if you are harmed by a cosmetic, matter how big the manufacturer is, the Food and Drug Administration advises that you should contact your own health care provider, contact the manufacturer, and make a report to the FDA. While they can’t give medical advice or immediately intervene, it’s reports from consumers that trigger investigations and get companies making bad products shut down. You can submit a report online complaints through Medwatch, or by calling 1-800-FDA-1088.
Update: After this article was finished, the company announced a voluntary recall on all polishes made with the allegedly defective base from Arminex.
FACT-CHECK: WHAT’S TO BLAME FOR THE MENTALITY NAIL POLISH PROBLEMS? [Lab Muffin]MENTALITY POLISH – MISTAKES HAPPEN BUT THIS RESPONSE IS UNACCEPTABLE [The Mercurial Magpie]about my nails + me [Amy McMaster]What’s Going on With Mentality? [Betty’s Beauty Bombs]Customers Complain that Mentality Polish Is Seriously Fucking Up Their Nails[Jezebel]Small Businesses & Homemade Cosmetics: Fact Sheet [FDA]