Eco-friendly manicure ideas for a greener nail care routine

Just the smell of standard nail polish or nail polish remover gives an insight into its eco credentials. It’s not the best thing to use if you want to protect the environment. The fact is, the most eco-friendly manicure you can have is no manicure at all. But we’re not in the business of taking away all the fun! So we’ve investigated some ways we can all have pretty nails but with a lower impact on the planet. 

Before you read on – if you’re making an effort to build greener habits, we have just the thing for you. The Ailuna app helps you to adopt sustainable habits that will actually stick. It’s free and available in the App Store and Google Play store now. Click here to download the FREE Ailuna app and start building better habits today.

someone with a green manicure holding a trailing pot plant

7 minutes to read

Why aren’t standard manicures eco-friendly?

Whether you head to a nail salon for your manicure or prefer a DIY at home job, there are a few known risks to our health and the planet.

Firstly, a lot of nail polishes, glues, fake nails and polish removers contain chemicals and toxins that have been found to pose a health risk to anyone coming into contact with them. We want to focus mainly on the environmental benefits of switching to a more eco-friendly manicure. But this article covers the health risks in detail and is worth a read if you’re interested.

What impact do nail products have on the planet?

Generally speaking, if something is harmful to humans, it’ll be harmful to aquatic life and other wildlife, too. So this is a great first reason to consider a more eco-friendly nailcare routine.

It’s a little-known fact that nail polish bottles cannot be recycled. This is because it’s usually impossible to clear them out, meaning they will always contain toxic substances and must be disposed of as such. So even if you’ve chosen a glass bottle, it’s probably never going to make it to being a new bottle. The applicator brushes are usually plastic and non-recyclable, which poses another problem.

As well as the recycling issue, fake nails and hardened polish that’s been chipped or picked off are almost certainly non-degradable. It’s very easy for these tiny pieces to make their way into the soil and even the ocean as microplastics. This is an issue we’re all very aware of and know we need to change, so we’ll spare you the lecture!

There’s also the waste issue to take into consideration. Your average manicure might include cotton pads, cotton wool buds, plastic off-cuts from false nails, nail files and bottles of products to help us condition, shape, seal, harden and perfect our manicure. This can contribute to the strain the planet is already taking. In turn, if not disposed of properly, this can be disastrous for wildlife, the water system and soil.

Eco-friendly manicure – simple swaps

Luckily, it’s not too difficult to switch to some more planet-friendly products. We have found some great make-at-home alternatives to popular nail care products. We’ve also as identified the types of products you could look to buy to help make your manicure more eco-friendly.

Remember, it’s usually best to use up products you already own before buying new ones – whether they’re eco-friendly or not. If you want to make the switch overnight, you could donate your unwanted products to friends or family. Alternatively, some unused cosmetic and beauty products can be given to those in need. This can be done through organisations like The Beauty Banks, who have collection points in many Superdrug stores across the UK. 

Eco-friendly cuticle oil 

If cuticle oil and a nail strengthener are usually part of your nail care routine and you’d like to switch, don’t worry! There are some more eco-friendly options out there.

Cuticle oil is designed to moisturise your nails, soften your cuticles and in some cases, promote nail growth through stimulating the nail bed. It’s fairly easy to find a natural cuticle oil without any toxins. But there’s an even more eco-friendly way to build it into your manicure, and that is making your own.

DIY cuticle oil recipe

Making cuticle oil yourself is a great option because you probably have most of the ingredients already. If not, they’re all simple to get hold of.

All you need is:

  • Base oil – think olive, coconut, avocado or almond
  • Vitamin E oil
  • Your favourite essential oil for scent
  • A small glass bottle for storage

This article shows how simple it can be to make – and you can adapt the ingredients too, to suit what you have and what you like.

Once you’ve made it, you can use a roller attachment or your fingers to apply it to your cuticles and nails, massage and enjoy.

essential oil bottles on a natural background with plants

Eco-friendly nail strengtheners

Nail strengtheners do exactly what they say on the bottle. They help to strengthen weak, thin, or brittle nails and make them a perfect base for your favourite new eco-friendly polish.

But (there’s always a but, isn’t there?), some nail strengtheners contain formaldehyde. It’s been proven to have many detrimental health effects including skin and lung irritation and even infertility. 

So, if you have weak, flimsy nails that are in need of a pick-me-up, what can you do? Luckily there are some kinder options, such as avoiding using gels, which can damage and weaken your nails. Also, simply giving your nails a break from polish for a few weeks and allowing them to “breathe” and be natural works well too. 

Minimising your nails’ exposure to water is another way to keep them strong and healthy. So make sure you’re wearing rubber gloves when washing up and moisturise after washing your hands. Speaking of water, keeping well-hydrated throughout the day can also add vitality and strength to your nails. 

If you still need a helping hand, do a quick search for “natural nail strengthener” and a whole host of options will pop up so you can pick the one that most suits you and your nails.

Cotton pads

Cotton is biodegradable in its natural form, which sounds promising. However, cotton pads are usually bleached and put through mixing processes that mean they don’t break down easily.

cotton wool buds and pads are not conducive to an eco-friendly manicure

Cotton crops also require a large amount of water to grow, so using cotton in longer-life items such as clothing is much more sustainable than in single-use items.

Never fear, though, there are many reusable options out there. So you’re sure to find one that will suit your routine and your budget. Some of the choices available include bamboo and hemp pads – both of which are available in the Ailuna shop, if you’d like to grab some now. Both of these are reasonably-priced and usually come in a washable bag. So you won’t find yourself searching the drum of your washing machine for missing pads as well as those infamous lonely socks.

Eco friendly false nails

False nails are usually, but not exclusively, plastic-based. They also require strong glue to keep them fixed tight to your natural nails as you go about your day. 

This combination of plastic and potentially harmful chemicals is easily avoided though. As brands become more aware of their impact on the planet, they’re coming up with innovative ways to develop eco-friendly manicure products.

intricately decorated green themed manicure

There are some brands using cutting-edge technology to make nails from recycled plastics that are either reusable or recyclable, in some cases both! As long as it’s very clear how to ensure your nails actually are recycled once you’re done, this can be a great step towards a more eco-friendly manicure.

Keep an eye out for the brands that are also making an effort to also use non-toxic glue and who are trying to reduce the packaging their nails arrive in. Every tiny effort helps!

Planet-friendly nail polish

So, you’ve got your recycled nails or you’ve prepared your natural nails with your new products. Now it’s time to paint them.

With the increased awareness of the impact on the environment and health, there are many polish brands out there making a difference. Look for polishes that are missing the “big 3” toxins (formaldehyde, toluene and DBP), as these are seen to be the most harmful.

Even though it can last longer, avoiding gel polish is usually best. This is because it’s non-degradable and usually contains some of the most toxic chemicals. These are what gives it the super-hard, shiny texture we all love it for. But sadly, as outlined at the beginning of this article, this can come with an environmental cost.

We’ve recently come across sustainable nail polish brand Earthy Nail Polish. Their polishes are all vegan and cruelty free and they have replaced the plastic cap with bamboo. All the seals within the cap are made from post-consumer plastic, and they offer a “return recycle” programme, so you can return your bottle to them to be reused. Anything that cannot be used is then recycled.

If, like me, you’re a fan of glitter polish, you are probably (also like me) dreading the next sentence. Here it comes… 

Glitter nail polishes are possibly the worst choice if you’re looking for an eco-friendly manicure. However, I’m not going to drop a problem on you without suggesting a solution, so here it is! To get a sparkly yet planet-friendly manicure, use biodegradable glitter.  All you need to do is decorate wet nails for a unique sparkle. Then apply a topcoat to seal it on or you may find more glitter on your keyboard or your coffee cup than your nails.


Nail polish removers

I’m not going to pretend there’s an easy option here. Nail polish removers are notoriously full of chemicals. The smell gets you before you’ve even placed your reusable bamboo pad to the bottle.

There have been some homemade options floating around the internet but they just don’t seem to work on the polishes of today. Gone are the good old days of vinegar, lemon and water combinations. But there are alternatives available to purchase such as this one from Holland & Barratt. It’s not entirely chemical-free but it’s a lot better than traditional acetone-containing removers.

If you can bear the growing out period, by far the most sustainable way to “remove” your polish is by simply letting your nails grow and snipping off the ends as they get too long. This only works if your nail polish is biodegradable, though. As putting plastic-coated nail clippings into your compost bin is not going to work. Yes, fingernails are compostable – I just checked!

Eco-friendly salon manicures

So, having talked about the eco-friendly home manicure, what if you’re not doing it yourself?

With a rise in ‘conscious consumerism’, there are lots more eco-friendly and ethical salons popping up or converting their practices. So it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one near you that’s started making changes.

nail salon with a natural, pastel look to walls and furniture

A lot of salons will first look at removing the biggest consumption from their services – water. Waterless services are a high priority because water is bad for your nails. It depletes natural oils, absorbs into the nails, causing them to stretch. Then the nail retracts back, which ultimately weakens it and can damage your perfectly-applied polish.

Salons are also starting to focus more on the nails themselves, not just the ‘look’ you walk out with. They’re reducing or completely removing the use of harsh chemicals. They’re also looking to focus on nail health, education and personalising treatments to your needs and the condition of your nails.

First steps to an eco-friendly manicure

There are plenty of steps you can take to make your manicure more eco-friendly.

Our tip  – and if you’ve read this blog for a while, this won’t surprise you – is to start small. If you take your time to find the products and brands that work in harmony with your values, you’ll ultimately end up wasting less, which is always a good start. Do your research and share your new-found knowledge with your friends.

We’d also love to see your amazing eco-friendly manicures. Leave us a comment below to let us know which products or salons you love. Or tag us in your nail photos on Instagram using the hashtag #ailunacommunity.

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