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Update (2018-12-05): Since Danny of Mentality Nail Polish has generously sent me a cease and desist for defamation as seen in the comments section, I’d like to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to clarify (even though I think it’s pretty damn clear already) that the causes of the issues are science-based opinion and speculation.
Thanks to @dmm_nails for letting me use images of her poor nails!
The technical term for this is onycholysis – when your nail detaches from the underlying nail bed. It’s painful, it’s inconvenient, it’s ugly, and you have to wait til it grows out to recover (if it ever does). There are lots of write-ups on the multitude of legal and ethical fuck-ups that Mentality Nail Polish have made in handling this issue, so I’m not going to rehash that in this post (you can read all about it at The Mercurial Magpie and Ashley Is Polish Addicted, amongst others). Like many others, I’ve been racking my brains wondering what exactly went wrong.
Of course, we won’t know for sure until someone gets analysis results back from a lab. Mentality “almost have enough funds” for an analysis now (although they’ve reportedly known about this problem since September last year, and a GCMS can ordered for under $100 and they haven’t even done that, so I’m guessing we’ll hear the results in 2020 or after an injunction?). But since they’re going full Laganja on this one, I’m not holding my breath.
In the meantime, here’s my analysis of all the speculations that have been flying around. Keep in mind that these are just speculative hypotheses and my opinions on them only – they’ll change as we get more complete information (which is pretty tricky, as Mentality have been deleting their posts, and I’m having trouble finding some of their past statements… I’m sure a lot of links I currently have here will die!). As I’ve read more, I’ve changed my mind about 7 times about what I think the most likely cause is. I’ll be updating the possible explanations as they develop.
What we know
- Indie makers typically buy a pre-made base from a larger manufacturer, then add tints and glitters. This is what Mentality have supposedly been doing.
- From Mentality’s Facebook page:
- Mentality were using Tevco and Fiabila base (3/4 free), but sometime late last year/early this year they switched to a base from Arminex (5 free – parent company of Nubar). They’ve since switched back. They do not make nail polish base themselves… “yet”.
- The problematic polishes aren’t isolated to the neons, although the neons were very popular and consumed whole barrels of the base, so they’re the most commonly reported.
- Mentality degassed all the bases to “remove air bubbles and found that Arminex base is very foamy, compared to the other manufacturers whose polish base does not foam upon degassing.”
- Not everyone who wore them were affected (around 40 people have reported reactions to Mentality so far). The earliest case was @spilledmilknails, a Mentality swatcher, in September 2014.
- From people who own the affected polishes:
- The polishes with the different base smell very “chemical” “like melted plastic”, and the smell seems to have gotten worse over time.
- Some people were reporting stinging, itching and redness upon application.
- People who experienced nail detachment generally wore them for longer periods, while swatchers who removed them immediately were generally affected less. There are exceptions though – apparently someone swatched them for 4 hours and ended up with nail damage a few days later.
Faulty Arminex Base Theories
This is the angle that Mentality have been pushing, which makes sense because it means less liability for them and hence their best chance of getting out of this without being buried in a steaming turdpile of legal troubles.
1. Citric acid
Citric acid was the first ingredient named by Mentality as a potential culprit. Current creme and holo polish (OK base):
Ethyl Acetate, Butyl Acetate, Phthalic Anhydride/Trimellitic Anhydride/Glycols Copolymer, Nitrocellulose, Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Isopropyl Alcohol, SD Alcohol 40B, Sucrose Acetate Isobutyrate, Silica, Diethylhexyl Adipate, Butyl Alcohol, Benzyl Alcohol, Benzophenone-1.
Problematic base (spelling corrected *grinds teeth*):
Butyl Acetate, Ethyl Acetate, Nitrocellulose, Acetyl Tributyl Citrate, Phthalic Anhydride/Trimellitic Anhydride/Glycols Copolymer, Isopropyl Alcohol, Stearalkonium Hectorite, Adipic Acid/Fumaric Acid/Phthalic Acid/Tricyclodecane Dimethanol Copolymer, Citric Acid.
Sourced from their ingredient info page. I’ve bolded ingredients unique to each base. Yes, citric acid is one of them. However:
- Citric acid has been in lots of things for literally millenia (it’s inside your body as part of the Krebs cycle, which produces energy in a stupid number of organisms including us), and people don’t habitually get detached nails. It’s in fruit, jams, bath bombs, sour lollies, not to mention a whole heap of cosmetics, including lots of nail polish.
- Citric acid has specifically been in nail polish for decades (it’s part of the system used to keep all the pigments and glitters floating). It’s in almost every single Australian indie polish, and I know a LOT of Australian polish addicts who have been wearing indies for literally years on end with no problems.
- Citrus fruits can cause onycholysis via a phototoxic reaction which leads to blistering…but not because of the citric acid. It’s the psolarens and fuorocouramins, which you’ll know if you’ve read this post about DIY lemon juice skincare recipes. In industry, citric acid is produced by microbial fermentation, so contamination is pretty much impossible.
- Citric acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). Glycolic acid, the main AHA in use these days, is known to cause photosensitisation – people get sunburnt faster under UV light after glycolic acid treatment. But sunburn doesn’t usually cause nail detachment unless it’s very severe, and most of these nail fans are wearing opaque polishes almost all the time, which would block UV from reaching the nail bed.
Verdict: Highly unlikely. Don’t chuck out all your citric acid-containing polishes!
2. Contamination of Arminex base in general
Mentality’s current suspect is cross-contamination with methacrylates. For more specifics scroll down to the Methacrylate Contamination section below.
For all faulty Arminex base theories:
- Mentality are the only company (as far as we know) who seems to be experiencing these issues, although they aren’t Arminex’s only customer, and probably not their biggest customer. If the contamination was more widespread, we’d have heard something by now. What are the chances that Arminex have managed to contaminate Mentality’s base only?
- Mentality (founded 2012) have less experience with formulating polish than Arminex/Nubar (est 2000/2001). Arminex are also more regulated.
- Arminex have been around a lot longer and haven’t screwed up before (as far as we know).
- Mentality are using with a much wider range of ingredients, particularly ingredients that may not have been used in polish before.
- Mentality are very quickly reformulated and are replacing affected bottles. This suggests to me that they aren’t performing thorough stability tests on their products.
Verdict: Unlikely, but possible
Faulty Polish Theories
With what we know so far, it seems much more likely that it’s something that Mentality have done that’s causing all this, given how these problems have been isolated to one company. Here are some of the suggestions:
1. Fungal contamination
Fungal infections are the most common causes of onycholysis, and some of the affected nails look like they have fungi spots. But:
- Fungi don’t survive well in nail polish since it’s full of solvent.
- It’s possible that there are pockets of fungi in the nail polish, but it’s unlikely since these would be visible.
- Fungi wouldn’t cause immediate stinging and tingling, and shouldn’t cause a strong solventy odour either.
Verdict: Highly unlikely. The fungal infections probably occurred after detachment of the nail.
2. Unstable pigment
This was tentatively suggested by Ray from Nail Super Store, who supplies most of Australia’s indies with base. In particular, he suspects neon pigments.
- Some pigments could react with solvent to produce formaldehyde or other organic compounds, which would explain the smell and the rapid penetration through the nail (small molecules are both more smelly and penetrate through the nail faster).
- Formaldehyde is known to cause onycholysis.
- Very few neon pigments have been registered with the FDA. This isn’t to say that they’re dangerous, just relatively untested.
- Neon pigments contain dye protected by a resin coating, which may dissolve in solvent, releasing the chemicals inside gradually. This would explain the intensifying odour.
- The polishes affected aren’t all neons, but non-neon polishes might use a mixture containing neon pigments.
- Mentality claim all their additives have been approved for use in cosmetics, although some speculate that they could be using automotive pigments. “Cosmetics” also doesn’t just mean nail polish – pigments that are OK in another product can undergo unexpected changes in harsh polish solvents.
- The Arminex base doesn’t appear to contain anything harsher than the OK base, but it’s causing more issues (so far. If the pigment is the issue, it could be a few months before problems emerge with the “OK” formulation). But this could also be explained by the tiny bit of extra acid or a higher concentration of a shared ingredient.
(Ray is actually responsibly removing neon pigments from his store based on this possibility. Notice how he’s not putting it on sale.)
3. Destabilised polish due to degassing etc.
Another suggestion is that the base was fine, but then decomposed due to processes performed by Mentality (e.g. degassing), forming a toxic chemical.
- Mentality claim they’ve used vacuum degassing on their regular polish, and ultrasonic degassing on gel polish. Vacuum degassing used alone should be OK, but sometimes it’s done with heat, which can cause all sorts of side reactions (including accelerating the decomposition of a pigment).
- They claim they haven’t performed ultrasonic degassing… but it’s possible that they have and aren’t disclosing it. Ultrasound accelerates a lot of reactions.
- The Nubar MSDS does state that “Under some conditions, methane, irritating aldehydes and carboxylic acids and hydrogen cyanide may be formed.” Irritating aldehydes… wait, isn’t formaldehyde one of those?
4. Mystery homemade base
This is an interesting hypothesis put forward by Mike Levine, a chemist husband of a nail polish fan. The theory is that Mentality have been experimenting with making their own polish base without properly understanding the chemistry and the testing involved. It failed spectacularly, and they’re trying to pass the blame off onto Arminex.
- Bases are cheaper if they’re sourced from dodgier places, or homemade from sourced ingredients. The people behind Mentality have been talking about making their own base for a while.
- Some people have pointed out that degassing equipment is typically not used with premade bases – if the base was from Arminex, why would they need degassing equipment?
- However, if the pigments are hard to mix, it might require some hardcore industrial mixing, which could result in bubbles that would need degassing (more info on post-mixing degassing). But degassing equipment is pretty expensive – no other indie maker seems to need it.
- They could have bought the equipment in anticipation of branching into making base, and used it to sort out their innocently clumpy polish instead? I don’t think the degassing is a smoking gun.. but it’s not not a smoking gun.
5. Heavy metal contamination (added 27/8)
Heavy metal contamination is a theory I’ve recently seen popping up in some discussions.
- Heavy metals are sometimes used in colouring agents, and is often in industrial waste.
- They’re toxic metals of high molecular weight – the most commonly worrisome ones are lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
- Heavy metal poisoning leads to really horrible neurological symptoms – seizures, developmental delays (especially in young children), birth abnormalities.
- BUT… they don’t sting or cause any other short term effects.
Verdict: Highly unlikely. They could be in there, but they’re not causing the problems we’re seeing.
6. Methacrylate contamination (expanded 27/8)
Here’s the latest proposed suspect from Mentality: methacrylate contamination of the Arminex base.
- Methacrylates are small monomers in gel polish that join together to form a polymer after UV light irradiation. If not polymerised, they can cause sensitivity, and if they’re mistakenly included in a normal polish, the unreacted monomers would be in contact with skin and nails for far longer than usual.
- There are multiple methacrylates used in gel polish. The most common are ethyl methacrylate (EMA) and poly(methyl acrylate) (PMA). Methyl methacrylate (MMA) causes more irritation and allergic issues, and has been phased out though it’s technically still legal for use in many places. It can be used safely.
- Allergic reactions to EMA and PMA are rare – they’re larger, so it’s harder for them to penetrate the skin and irritate it.
- MMA is more frequently used in acrylic products – reputable brands don’t use it in their gel formulas (I can’t find Nubar’s gel ingredient list online to confirm though), but it’s cheap so it’s often used in dodgy nail stores.
- 2-Hydroxylethyl methacrylate (HEMA) is another common allergen found in gels.
- When cured properly under a UV lamp, there should be no irritation.
- Mentality have stated that the affected polishes have “a methacrylates odor”, and that the separated nails “bear a strong resemblance to UV Gel burns”.
- Another acrylate used with nails that has a high incidence of sensitivity is ethyl cyanoacrylate (ECA), found in nail glue.
If it’s indeed methacrylate contamination, how did it get in there? The manufacturers of Arminex also make gel formulas which use methacrylates, so cross contamination seems like it could be an explanation. Alternatively, Mentality themselves might’ve contaminated their base with methacrylates. Here are the possibilities:
a. Arminex contaminated the polish base accidentally during manufacture: Unlikely
- This is Mentality’s current stance – they haven’t said this explicitly (probably because of the C&D), but that’s the logical interpretation of this “not our fault!” 27/8 update:
We were unable to identify the smell of advanced plastics until we began to work with gel in bulk format. We only ever had samples and personal purchases of UV Gel for product testing in the months prior to receiving our first shipment of raw gel material this July 29th.
- See the section above on Faulty Base Theories – it seems pretty unlikely that Arminex managed to contaminate Mentality’s base only.
b. Arminex sent them the wrong base altogether: Unlikely but possible
- I think this is the best chance that Mentality have of this whole thing NOT being their fault – if Arminex mislabelled a gel base as a regular base, and Mentality have been unknowingly using it as a regular base.
- However, it seems like most people who have used the affected polishes have experienced tingling and sensitivity immediately after application (a matter of minutes). Most people aren’t sensitive to gel polish, especially if we assume that the Arminex bases are reputable and don’t contain MMA.
c. Mentality contaminated the polish base accidentally with premade gel base, or just used gel base accidentally instead of normal base: Possible
- Mentality have been playing with fancy equipment, and they’ve just launched a new gel line. Both types of base look clear, so it’s possible that they haven’t washed equipment properly before using it with their normal base, leading to contamination.
- Again, most people aren’t sensitive to gel polish – it’s even more unlikely that they’d be sensitive to gel polish that’s highly diluted with normal base.
- It’s possible that they just accidentally used premade gel base instead of normal base.
- If this is what happened, it’s unlikely that the gel contained only EMA and PMA – there must have been MMA or some other highly irritating chemical in the gel base they were using.
d. Mentality contaminated the polish base accidentally with raw gel materials: Possible
- Mentality have been experimenting with making gel base from raw gel materials.
- However, they claim to only have had samples and personal purchases of UV gel for product testing before July 29th (corroborated by posts on the owner’s personal Facebook wall – it’s unlikely that they had the foresight to plant evidence at the end of July to use later, but it’s possible).
- This would explain how they got a concentration of methacrylates in the base that’s high enough to cause so many reactions.
There’s actually a way to check if there’s methacrylate in the polish – the polish can be decanted (carefully in a well-ventilated area) into two polish-proof tubs, and one can be irradiated under a UV lamp or in the sun for a few minutes. If the texture of one changes and the other doesn’t (e.g. if you poke them with a skewer), then it’s likely that it contains methacrylates and a photoinitiator. (Of course, the methacrylate could be at too low a concentration to change the polish texture significantly, or there might not be photoinitiator in there to get the reaction to start, so a negative result could still mean there’s methacrylate, but there’s a chance of a positive result which would be exciting!)
Final Word of Caution
It’s unlikely that we’ll know anything for sure for at least a few weeks, but if you do own any of the offending polish – don’t risk wearing it! It can take years for your nails to recover, and the scary thing is – we don’t know what’s in the polish. There are way too many possibilities at the moment. You don’t want to have terminal cancer years down the track, just because you wanted to wear a very specific, painful, stinky polish. Keep the bottles in case they’re needed for analysis or claims later, and put on something by a quality indie brand who actually care about the health of their customers!
Arminex have issued a cease and desist, which Mentality have smugly posted on their Facebook wall, for… who knows what reason anymore (not complaining here, just bewildered and grateful for extra info!).
- Arminex claim that the problems with Mentality came up before Mentality bought their base, Mentality claim otherwise.
- Arminex states that no other companies who bought that base have reported problems.
- Mentality’s other communications state that they’ve used other suppliers of suspension base, including Chinese suppliers (!).
- Mentality have sent samples of Arminex’s Matte Creme Base (used in the Textures collection) and some New Transparent Glitter Base (pulled when bloggers uncovered sensitivities.
- Were the Textures actually one of the collections affected?
- Mentality could’ve spiked the base, of course. (Mentality have hired a security guard to guard their reserves of base…OK.)
- Arminex are going to do their own tests (they’ve requested that affected people send them bottles for analysis) so I guess we’ll see soon.
Mentality have added 2 more updates on their Facebook and Instagram pages:
Update 1: The affected base is being submitted for materials identification. We believe that it has a methacrylates odor and may possibly be rendered benign by use of a UV lamp. We were unable to identify the smell of advanced plastics until we began to work with gel in bulk format. We only ever had samples and personal purchases of UV Gel for product testing in the months prior to receiving our first shipment of raw gel material this July 29th.
We believe that the images submitted to us bear a strong resemblance to UV Gel burns.
Orders are shipping. Remakes are shipping. All work is in the new bases. Thank you for your patience while we worked through this. Please stay tuned so that we can provide important information to meet further legal needs. Never quit.
Update 2: We are issuing a full recall on all Mentality Nail Polish produced in Arminex base before their lawyers force us to stop using their name in conjunction with the physical damage suffered by our clients. We are pursuing a class action lawsuit in regards to the personal injuries that many of them have received using our nail polish that was produced in that base. We have lost confidence in any polish that was produced in their base, starting from early April 2014 to the end of June 2015. The label will have citric acid as the final ingredient, or a gloss label, or a 5 free label, or all screen printed bottles. If we have yet to hear from you, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please be patient. There are only two of us, but we are now acquiring help.
Our lawyers are being given our entire client list. Please copy and share this image before this board is closed by their lawyers, who were the first to contact us since we lodged a complaint with our distributor regarding this matter two months ago.
We operated from multiple store fronts, some of which we do not maintain anymore. It may be impossible to reach everyone that we sold Arminex base-produced products to, but we are counting on your word of mouth. Your combined efforts have helped us turn this into an internet firestorm. We still need your help.
Finances to the company have been handed over to our accountant, who is also a registered California notary. She is issuing shipping labels for new orders and remakes. We have requested allowance for housing and food but no discretionary income. All other funds will be retained to clear refunds that are now processing.
Thank you to everyone for your patience while we worked to find solution. We never not stopped. We were always working. Often we were in tears with you. We do not know yet how we will make this happen, because about $80,000 in paint, but we will not quit fighting for our clients, even for those that lost hope along the way.
I’ve expanded more on the methacrylates theory, and added a section for heavy metals, which I’ve seen popping up in a few places.