At Refinery29, we round up the most Instagram-worthy nail art ahead of each season, give you our honest verdict on manicure trends before they hit your local salon and put countless press-ons and polishes through their paces. As beauty editors, it’s all part of the job. But we also understand the importance of holding ourselves — and the beauty industry — accountable. That’s why, for Earth Month 2023, we’re exploring the nail industry and its potentially detrimental impact on the planet.
Nails are an affordable luxury for so many but despite the relatively low cost to the average manicure enthusiast, the nail market’s worth is enormous, with figures suggesting it could reach US $29.85 billion by 2030. Traditional nail polish is especially popular. Cosmetics Design reports that polish sales reached USD $154 million in 2022, although artificial nails like press-ons (worth USD $160 million last year) are forecast to outperform sales of polish in 2023. The "Pinterest Predicts" 2023 report highlights 'micro French' nails and 'short stiletto' nails among the most searched nail trends this year.
It’s important to note that the nail care industry is just one of many arms of beauty that contribute to waste. Green Circle data suggests the North American beauty industry sends 877lb (397kg) of waste to landfill every minute, while the British Beauty Council estimates that 95% of cosmetic packaging is thrown away. Plastic pollution in particular has become one of the most pressing environmental issues. According to the British Beauty Council, recycling rates in the beauty industry are low; of the 14% of packaging that goes to a recycling plant, only 9% is recycled while the rest heads to landfill.
The manicure’s contribution to beauty waste can’t be dismissed. A study published in Detritus: The Multidisciplinary Journal for Waste Resources & Residues reports that as the global consumption of nail polish grows, so will quantities of packaging and nail polish waste. Scratch, the UK’s leading magazine for nail professionals, reveals that nail files, cotton wool, nail brushes and lint-free wipes used during manicures are considered contaminated and therefore not recyclable. As gratifying as a full set can be, it’s difficult to ignore the strain that our obsession with manicured nails may be putting on the planet.
Are press-on nails bad for the environment?
With options ranging from classic French tips to more experimental designs like jelly nails, it’s safe to say that press-ons are everywhere. TikTok views for the hashtag #pressonnails (6.5 billion views) have overtaken those for #gelnails (5.4 billion views) and Google Trends shows that search for press-ons is at an all-time high. It makes sense: they're purse-friendly, convenient and fun to wear.
"Press-ons have definitely improved in the last few years," says session manicurist Ami Streets. But what they’re made of could be a cause for concern. Press-ons can be spun out of different materials such as resin and gel but, unfortunately, plastic is still a go-to. You’d be forgiven for thinking that they can be repurposed alongside the rest of your plastic beauty waste. The reality, says Ami, is that these types of nails are so small, they’re unable to be recycled in the same way as a shampoo bottle or an empty jar of moisturiser. "Most [press-on nails] currently available on the market are also non-degradable," adds Ami.
If you can’t recycle plastic press-on nails and they don’t break down when they eventually end up in landfill, what exactly happens to them? Sadly, it’s likely they’ll just sit there. Depending on the material and environmental factors such as sunlight exposure, it is reported that plastic can take anywhere between 20 and 500 years to degrade. Only some resin (for instance, if produced from organic material) is biodegradable. Sustainability influencer Monika Poppy is especially concerned about cheaply made press-on nails being widely available on websites such as Shein (which has 40 pages of results for press-ons) and AliExpress (60 pages of results) with little to no information on their origin and maker. That’s a red flag for more than one reason. "This counts for the packaging and the material [of the nail] itself, as well as labour rights," Monika tells R29. Questionable labour practices are a huge issue in the nail industry, not just in manufacturing but in salons, too.
Can you recycle press-on nails?
For the most part, press-on nails can't be recycled. A small handful of press-on nail brands were forthcoming when R29 invited them to comment on their sustainability practices. Sanja Hajdarpasic, cofounder and sustainability lead of LÓA Nails, confirms that the brand’s nail glue and press-on nails are too small to be recycled under current guidelines. "Any products smaller than 5cm cannot be recycled," explains Sanja. To prevent press-on nails from ending up in nature, LÓA recommends disposing of them in a household bin bag (though the most common destination of this rubbish is either landfill or an incinerator). LÓA Nails also encourages everyone to reuse its products where possible.
Bailey Stanworth, founder of Quickies, says that the brand’s press-on nails can be reworn two to three times and are made of ABS plastic, essentially a tougher plastic. "The material is durable enough to be reused and can be recycled after wear," explains Bailey. "As recycling regulations and bylaws vary between cities, it would be recommended to check how ABS plastic can be recycled in each user's location," she adds. Refinery29 also contacted Kiss Nails USA, the world’s leading supplier of artificial nails and press-on manicure kits. The brand declined to comment.
How bad are acrylic nails for the environment?
In spite of the argument that press-on nails continually end up in landfill, Ami suggests that when bought from a reputable source and reused over time, they could be the better option when compared to the amount of waste generated by professional acrylic and gel manicures.
Acrylic nails (chemically created via a combination of liquid monomer and powder polymer) are particularly troublesome. "When mixed together, the result is a quick-drying and durable, putty-like formula that can be moulded into shape to enhance nail density and length," explains Ami. Every step in the process of applying acrylic enhancements, from the application to the shaping, can contribute to environmental waste. "Single-use plastic gloves, nail files, chemical products required to create the enhancements themselves, debris from filing and foil pads for soak-offs are all factors," says Ami. "All of this is unable to be recycled — and is non-biodegradable."
As for the actual acrylics, toxicologist Rani Ghosh explains that they can be potentially harmful to the environment due to improper disposal techniques. "The materials used to make acrylic nails can include nail tips, glue and acetone," says Rani. "They should not be flushed down the toilet as they can end up in waterways, nor should they be thrown into a regular rubbish bin, as they can end up in landfills and pollute the environment." Rani drives home that most of the aforementioned substances are a form of plastic and therefore not biodegradable, even if they are minuscule. Recent research also shows that the air in nail salons contains high concentrations of microplastics (tiny fragments of plastic which enter the environment), while reports suggest that microplastic pollution poses a threat to our oceans and marine life.
Are gel nails or BIAB nails better for the environment?
Pollution concerns aside, the injury that artificial nails like acrylics and press-ons can cause to the natural nail bed (such as making nails feel brittle, thin and dry) has many gravitating towards more gentle gel nail extensions. While this may be a better option for overall nail health, where does all the gel polish go once it is soaked off? Strange as it may seem, Ami says that gel polish is formed from similar ingredients to acrylic nails, specifically acrylic monomers (molecules derived from acrylic acid).
"Dust and debris from these nail enhancements in addition to cotton or lint-free pads used during the [application and removal] process are unable to be recycled due to the chemical formulas involved," says Ami. Even 'free-from' gel brands, which Ami says are seen as a less 'toxic' choice because they often exclude ingredients like formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, can ultimately create waste upon removal. The environmental concerns associated with acrylic and gel nails are similar in that they both involve the use of materials and chemicals that can be harmful to the environment if not disposed of properly, adds Rani.
None of this is to say that you should give up your fortnightly manicure for good. With the industry bouncing back from COVID-19, showing support for your local nail technician is important — as is considering making more eco-friendly choices. Natural nail artist Corrinna Bianca believes that Builder in A Bottle (BIAB) formulas (a type of gel enhancement said to add strength and structure to nails) are better for general nail health and perhaps for the environment, too. The main reason is that BIAB nails can be filled in when your nails grow out, unlike gels. This avoids constant removal, reducing the use of acetone to soak off polish and resulting in less waste, explains Corrinna. It’s also not lost on nail experts that single-use cotton pads (widely used in the soak-off process) are a drain on plants and water resources, while cotton production is known to degrade soil.
Are natural nails better than gels and acrylics?
As the industry comes under scrutiny, it makes sense that we’re collectively leaning into natural nail trends. On TikTok, the hashtag #naturalnails has 2.5 billion views and counting, with manicure enthusiasts and nail artists making a case for nourished, bare nails. Corrinna is especially passionate about taking it back to the 'old school' way of caring for natural nails with oils and shine-enhancing buffers. Ashlee Piper, sustainability expert and author of Give A Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet, also favours manicures and pedicures which spotlight the health and integrity of nails, rather than polish or extensions. "In France, for example, [there are] medical pedicures, which are more about sloughing, buffing, cleaning and trimming — with no polish," she says.
The move away from gels and acrylics is perhaps why the likes of the Japanese manicure (which enlists buffing tools and moisturisers to enhance the appearance of the natural nail) and the 'dry' manicure (a waterless technique that skips the soaking step) are invading nail salons. If you’d rather eschew the salon entirely, Ashlee suggests investing in DIY manicure tools that last a lifetime, such as a glass nail file (which is much better for your nails than scratchy, disposable emery boards) and a good pair of durable clippers.
How can you find an ethical and sustainable nail salon?
Ultimately, it’s your salon’s responsibility to do better. Rani explains that local waste management facilities often provide specific guidelines on how to dispose of chemicals that may be considered hazardous waste. "Recycling plastic nail tips, for example, [means they can be] cleaned and sorted for a recycling programme," she adds. She believes all professional nail technicians should consider services like these, which collect used nail products (including acrylic nails) and recycle them into new products rather than sending them to landfill.
Rani encourages us to continue to enjoy our manicures but advises doing our bit for the planet by speaking up. A properly trained, qualified and insured nail technician should have no issue talking about their ethics or environmental footprint. Liza Smith, deputy chair of the Federation of Nail Professionals, sets a precedent when it comes to sustainability. "My salon uses the Green Salon Collective to have a full recycling system, and nothing goes to landfill," Liza tells R29. "We separate the cotton wool from the squares of foil after wrapping up nails to soak off gel polish. The foil goes into our metal recycling bin, while any cotton wool and pieces of gel polish go into our general waste bin that is taken by a specialist company, which converts that waste into energy. Empty gel and varnish glass bottles are recycled separately, too." Ami also suggests salons should think about investing in reusable bamboo cotton pads as well as reusable nail files, which can be disinfected after each client.
Recent research published by the British Beauty Council suggests that nail salons have seen an increase in numbers of 29.4% since 2017. It’s true that nail salons are by no means the only contributors to increasing beauty waste. But with the industry predicted to grow even more rapidly, it has never been more important to keep the conversation about nails and sustainability going strong.