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A substance so strong it's used in bulletproof glass: The hidden danger behind acrylic nails

It’s something many people might not even know about, despite FDA warnings.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — A local nail technician is raising the alarm about a dangerous chemical some nail salons use that could cause permanent damage to your nails.

It’s something many people might not even know about, despite FDA warnings.

Karen Kahan has worn acrylic nails for years but she didn’t realize those nails were the source of pain.

“They would have this tightness as if someone were to put a rubber band around your fingernail. That’s literally what it felt like,” Kahan said.

She’s talking about the type of acrylic she used: Methyl methacrylate or MMA. A substance so strong it’s used in concrete, joint replacements and dental work.

“MMA is actually used to make bulletproof glass, Plexiglas,” nail technician Diancia DeBerry said. “There’s a great deal that consumers do not know about nail salons.”

DeBerry said MMA can cause severe skin reactions and permanent nail damage.

“Ripped, torn and bleeding," she said, describing the damage she's seen. "Also, it can lead to nail deformities where the nail will no longer grow back the same.”

In the 1970s, the FDA received a litany of complaints about MMA. The agency oversaw recalls but there’s no specific regulation prohibiting the use of MMA in cosmetic products.

“You still see a lot of salons using it because it’s a cheaper product,” DeBerry said.

Cheaper than the safer alternative, Ethyl Methacrylate – or EMA.

“For this amount, I paid $6," DeBerry said gesturing to a bottle of MMA. "And this amount - it’s a 6 ounce of EMA – it was $22.”

The FDA said in its report: there was no “fingernail damage or deformity” associated with the use of EMA.

“I didn’t even know the difference until I experienced a difference,” Kahan said.

There are tell-tale signs that a salon is using MMA.

Kahan said, "They drill incessantly.”

Products may also lack labels or have generic bottles. MMA also has a noticeable chemical odor that can be irritating.

MMA will set extremely hard with little flexibility and removing it is difficult.

Curtisha Farmer got MMA acrylic nails a month ago. Her acetone soak-off took more than two hours.

“I didn’t know there was a difference in between the acrylics,” Farmer said.

While removing the MMA on Farmer's nails, DeBerry noted, “It’s actually very hard. It’s sticky at this point. It’s a slimy consistency.”

EMA, on the other hand, only took a few minutes to remove.

“It just crumbles and the product removes much easier,” DeBerry said while removing EMA on another client's nails.

However, the biggest indicator that MMA is being used is the price.

“If you’re paying $10 to $20 less per service, it’s a red flag for certain,” Kahan said.

Around 30 states specifically prohibit the use of MMA in nail product – including North Carolina.

Virginia only orders salons to not use any products “in a manner that is disapproved by the FDA” and to not use products that are banned by the FDA.

However, local cities have acted. For example, MMA is prohibited under the Virginia Beach Department of Public Health, Barbering, and Cosmetology, which means nail salons cannot have it on the premises.

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