The death of a Polish nail polish inventor has opened a window into a world of specialty cosmetics. Wojciech Inglot was a chemist and entrepreneur who tried to come up with a more healthful alternative to traditional nail polish. He died Feb. 23 at the age of 57.
Inglot leaves behind a market of grateful customers: Muslim women, who have flocked to his invention of a "breathable" polish that allows air and moisture to reach the nail bed. Some scholars say the cosmetic is uniquely permissible under Islamic law.
Vanessa Gera, chief correspondent in Poland for The Associated Press, was writing an article about Inglot when he died unexpectedly from internal hemorrhaging last month.
Gera tells Audie Cornish, host of All Things Considered, that Inglot spent his life inventing and had significant success in Poland. He started off manufacturing cleaners for cassette heads before eventually founding Inglot Cosmetics. She says he came into the market at the perfect time — the tail end of the Cold War.
"You can imagine that under the last years of communism and the first years of a democracy in Poland, it was a very drab time," she says. "And colors and varnishes and cosmetics were a huge hit with women — there was just a huge demand for that."
Some have criticized the chemicals in nail polish as toxic, both for the people who wear it and for the manicurists who apply it. Inglot said that because his product uses a polymer like that in contact lenses, which therefore allows the nail to "breathe," it was more healthful. He called it O2M, which stands for oxygen and moisture.
The nail industry is huge worldwide; some estimate it's a $4 billion-a-year business in the U.S. alone. But although Inglot's O2M polish debuted in 2009, it only recently started taking off among Muslim women, who must wash their hands and arms before praying:
Though the Muslim holy book, the Quran, does not specifically address the issue of nail polish, some Islamic scholars have said that water must touch the surface of the nail for the washing ritual to be done correctly.
Some Muslim women might put nail polish on after finishing the last prayer of the day before going out, and then take it off again before dawn prayers. They can also wear it during their periods, when they are excused from the prayers, but some find it embarrassing to do so because it could signal they are menstruating. Some simply don't want to take the trouble of getting a manicure that won't last long.
The rush for Inglot's special polish started in November when Islamic scholar Mustafa Umar decided to research whether the product was consistent with Islamic law. He wrote about the way he tested the O2M polish on his blog.
One of my students decided to perform a test to see whether or not water actually seeped through when using the Inglot O2M nail polish. As a test case, she applied standard pink nail polish and purple O2M on a coffee filter and allowed both to dry. She then placed another coffee filter below the painted one, squeezed two drops of water over the polish, and applied some pressure with her finger. After about ten seconds it was clear that the water was prevented from seeping through [even to the back side of the first filter] on the standard polish but clearly went through the O2M and even wet the second filter. This is sufficient to show that the claims made by the manufacturer are correct and water does indeed permeate through to the nail.
That post spread virally among Muslim women, according to Gera. "The Inglot company suddenly saw a sharp rise in the sale of its breathable nail polish. And all kinds of questions were coming into its headquarters in Poland," she says. Now the company markets O2M as "halal certified."
Gera had not yet published her story when Inglot died last week. She says his death took many by surprise.
"He was in good health; nobody saw it coming. And suddenly [my story] became a very serious, even a tragic story — the loss of this great Polish entrepreneur. For Poland, he's someone that they're very proud of."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The death of a Polish nail polish inventor has opened a window into the world of specialty cosmetics. Wojciech Inglot was a chemist who tried to come up with a healthy alternative to traditional nail polish. Inglot died last weekend at the age of 57. Inglot leaves behind a market of grateful women, particularly Muslim women who have flocked to his invention, a breathable polish that allows air and moisture to reach the nail bed.
Here to talk more about Inglot is Vanessa Gera, chief correspondent in Poland for the Associated Press. And, Vanessa, to start, tell us more about Mr. Inglot. Who was he and how did this breathable nail polish come to be?
VANESSA GERA: Mr. Inglot was a chemist and an entrepreneur who's had, you know, significant success in Poland and internationally in recent years. He came up with the idea of this breathable nail polish because he wanted to produce a nail polish that he said would be healthier for the nail than traditional nail polishes.
He explained to me that traditional nail polishes prevent moisture and air from reaching the nail. And when women wear that constantly, it's not healthy.
CORNISH: So you've actually spoken to him. Was he always interested in cosmetics?
GERA: In the 1980s, he started his first manufacturing business. He wasn't producing cosmetics at first. He started off with cleaners for cassette heads, and then he moved on to deodorants, and then he settled on cosmetics. You can imagine that under, you know, the last years of communism and the first years of the democracy in Poland was a kind of very - a very drab time. And colors and varnishes and cosmetics were a huge hit with women. There was just a huge demand for that.
CORNISH: And, of course, industry watchers say that globally the nail polish industry, it's like a $6 billion business, but it's also been controversial in some Muslim circles. Tell us why.
GERA: Yes. Muslim women, they have prayers five times a day, and there's a pre-prayer ritual that they go through in which they wash the hands and the arms. And some Muslim scholars - not all, but some - have decreed that nail polish is not lawful under Islamic law because it prevents the moisture, the water from reaching the nail bed. So with prayers five times a day, nail polish became very inconvenient for them.
CORNISH: So at what point does Mr. Inglot's invention kind of enter this market?
GERA: This nail polish, the breathable nail polish, hit the market in 2009, and it only recently started taking off with Muslim women. The craze - Mr. Inglot called it a craze - started in November when an Islamic scholar based in California decided to research whether it would be consistent with Islamic law. He wrote an article declaring that it was permissible under Islamic law, and the news just went viral.
One Muslim woman shared the information with her friend. It went from blog to blog. The Inglot company suddenly saw really a sharp rise in its sales of this breathable nail polish, and all kinds of questions were coming into their headquarters in Poland.
CORNISH: Vanessa, you mentioned that you talked to Mr. Inglot. It appears you were doing a story on him and then, suddenly, he dies. What happened?
GERA: Yes. Well, when I began to research this nail polish story, I thought this was going to be a very light and fun story to do. You know, nail polish - it doesn't get lighter than that, you know? Then when I started digging into it, I realized that because of the issue of Islamic law and ritual, there was actually quite - a quite serious side to it.
And then nine days after I visited his factory, interviewed him, he suffered internal hemorrhaging and was taken Saturday to a hospital in his hometown, but the doctors were unable to save him. He was in good health. Nobody saw it coming. And suddenly, it became a very serious, even a tragic story, you know, the loss of this great Polish entrepreneur. For Poland, you know, he's someone that they're very proud of.
CORNISH: Well, Vanessa Gera, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GERA: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
CORNISH: Vanessa Gera is the chief correspondent in Poland for the Associated Press. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.