As we’ve learned more and more in recent years, it’s very difficult to find good, healthy cosmetics. Words like “organic” and “natural” are not well-regulated and are often misleading, with numerous “natural” products containing toxic substances. We’ll walk through the toxic substances often included in nail polish, how to spot them, and how to avoid them in the first place.

Photo by Flickr user amOuna

The toxic trio of nail polish

If you look at the label of any nail polish, you’ll see a swarm of chemicals, such as butyl acetate, heptane, and dimethyl adipate. While most of these are completely harmless, some are not so benign.

The so-called toxic trio of nail polish consists of dibutyl phthalate (a plasticizer), toluene (to evenly suspend color), and formaldehyde (a known carcinogen that is used as a hardening agent). The toxicity of these substances is still debated, but there is significant evidence to raise big question marks. Let’s take them one by one:

  • Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP) is a commonly used plasticizer — it makes products more flexible. According to the EPA, this chemical appears to have relatively low acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) toxicity. No human studies have been published, so almost all of the information we have on them comes from animal studies. The effects aren’t severe, but short term exposure has been linked to nausea and irritated eyes, skin, nose, mouth, and throat. There were also reports indicating that DBP might have damaging effects on the reproductive system —  especially in males.
  • Toluene is a paint thinner. It’s a colorless, water-insoluble liquid often used in common glue — it’s the ingredient sniffed as a recreational inhalant in “glue sniffing“. Toluene toxicity has been studied much more than that of DBP and has been associated with dizziness, numbness, dry skin, and irritated nose, eyes, and throat. Liquid toluene is much more dangerous than its vapors, and some people can be more sensitive to it than others. Levels of up to 200 parts per million (ppm) are considered acceptable, and nail polish generally has much lower levels than this. The mechanism by which toluene produces systemic toxicity is not known, but the effects are generally short-termed.
  • Formaldehyde is frequently used in a variety of products although it can pose a significant danger to human health. It is a common precursor to more complex compounds and materials used in many industrial branches. Low levels of formaldehyde occur naturally in a variety of foods, such as fruits, but those levels aren’t dangerous. The FDA, which oversees the cosmetics industry, does not prohibit or regulate the use of formaldehyde in cosmetics — except in nail polish. Since it can be toxic, a formaldehyde limit was imposed in nail polish. The problem is in the quantity: nail hardeners include formaldehyde concentrations of up to 5%, while nail polish can go up to 0.5% — and that’s quite a lot.

The safety of nail polish was examined in the fall 2014 issue of Ms. magazine

Other health concerns with nail polish

Health advocates have campaigned against these substances for over a decade, but there are other chemicals that are also of concern. A study conducted by researchers from the Duke University and Environmental Working Group suggests that a chemical called triphenyl phosphate, or TPHP, is used in many types of nail polish.

This is a hormone-disrupting chemical, which is quite disturbing, but the study made another worrying find: the substance gets absorbed into the body every time nail polish is used.

“It is very troubling that nail polish being marketed to women and teenage girls contains a suspected endocrine disruptor,” said study co-author Johanna Congleton, Ph.D., MSPH, a senior scientist at EWG. “It is even more troubling to learn that their bodies absorb this chemical relatively quickly after they apply a coat of polish.”

Photo by Lelê Breveglieri.

Ironically, we get really annoyed when these substances are present in the materials around us, but for some reason, we’re more tolerant with what we put on ourselves.

“People get really upset about phthalates in plastics, but they don’t think about what’s in the cosmetics they’re applying directly to their skin,” study co-author Kate Hoffman, a researcher at Duke University, told Yahoo News . “The skin is an organ that takes it all in.”

The thing is, these substances sometimes not written on the label at all, or even if they are written, their effects are often not mentioned. They’re surrounded by numerous other benign chemicals and more often than not, the user is completely unaware of the potential toxicity carried by cosmetics.

Another report from California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control found that nearly all nail polishes in the state that claimed to be free of the “toxic trio” of chemicals mentioned above still contained them — and sometimes at higher levels than nail polishes that made no such claims.

“This is a perfect example of the failure of our regulatory system,” says Jamie Silberberger of the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance, a coalition of public-health advocates pushing for better product safety and improved health conditions in nail and hair salons. “These nail polishes continue to be used in salons, yet salon workers and consumers are so misinformed about them.”

Does this mean we should stop using nail polish?

Absolutely not. It’s important to remember that the dose makes the poison, so the occasional use should pose no risk. If you use nail polish all the time or if you work in a cosmetic salon, however, you may be at significant risk. Ensure that ventilation is adequate in the salon or room. Also, take care of your cuticles to minimize contact between polish and skin.

“No one is saying that occasional application of nail polish will cause long-term health consequences,” Janet Nudelman, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, told the New York Times.

Image via Youtube.

Also, try to stay informed and avoid products with potentially toxic compounds. However, this can be quite difficult because due to the lack of strict regulation, labels are often misleading. You can use Skin Deep, the Environmental Working Group searchable cosmetics database to look for “safer” polishes – water-based nail polish is generally much safer and eco-friendly.

You can have beautiful nails and stay safe, it’s completely possible. Nail polish has been around for thousands of years, and it’s here to stay — we just have to make it a touch healthier.