By Dr. Mercola
Painting your nails may seem like an innocent part of your beauty routine, but inside those colorful bottles are some not-so-pretty secrets. Toxic chemicals are common in nail polish, and there’s often no way for you to know exactly what’s lurking inside.
Some might argue that occasional application of nail polish is only going to expose you to trace amounts of chemicals in levels too low to raise concern, but nail polish is just one beauty product that many women use on a regular basis.
When you add up the toxic exposures from nail polish, however “small” they may (or may not) be, with those from fragrances, makeup, body lotions, and more, it can no longer be brushed off as insignificant.
Many chemicals, including those known as endocrine disruptors, have shown adverse effects at even very low doses, and even more concerning are the effects of such chemicals on the most vulnerable populations, like pregnant women and young children (who may also have their nails painted on occasion).
So knowing what’s in your nail polish should not be an afterthought. Americans spend upwards of $768 million a year on nail polish, and nail products represent the strongest and fastest-growing segment of the beauty industry.1
You have the power to change the direction this industry is heading by demanding safe, truly non-toxic nail products… and supporting only those brands that follow suit.
Nail Polish Plasticizer Linked to Birth Defects in Animals
In 2000, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a study showing that 37 nail polishes from 22 companies contained dibutyl phthalate (DBP). DBP is known to cause lifelong reproductive impairments in male rats, and has been shown to damage the testes, prostate gland, epididymis, penis, and seminal vesicles in animals.
It’s used in nail polish because it increases flexibility and shine, but research by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that all 289 people tested had DBP in their bodies.2
Worse still, this chemical, which remember is linked to birth defects in animals, was found at the highest levels in women of childbearing age. According to EWG:3
“Women of childbearing age appeared to receive the highest exposures to DBP. Estimates based on data published by CDC researchers in October 2000 indicate that DBP exposures for 3 million women of childbearing age may be up to 20 times greater than for the average person.
Children born to these women would receive considerable exposure while in the womb, undergoing the most sensitive period of growth and development.”
For instance, in one study, women who had higher concentrations of two types of phthalates (DEHP and DBP) also had boys who appeared more feminized in their personality while playing. EWG’s findings were the impetus for a coalition of environmental and public health organizations, including EWG, to begin a push for companies to get these toxic chemicals out of their products…
The ‘Toxic Trio’ in Nail Polish
DBP is the first of the toxic trio. The other two toxic ingredients commonly found in nail polish include:
- Toluene, which is made from petroleum or coal tar. Chronic exposure linked to anemia, lowered blood cell count, liver or kidney damage, and may affect a developing fetus. In nail polish, toluene is used to give the polish a smooth finish.
- Formaldehyde, a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant, and a known carcinogen (formaldehyde exposure has been associated with leukemia specifically). Formaldehyde is used in nail polish as a hardener and preservative.
The chemicals are not only a concern for women using the polish, but also for workers in nail salons, who are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis. The good news is that, beginning in 2006, some large cosmetic companies announced they were going “three free.”
They pledged to remove the toxic trio from their nail polish. The bad news is that, in 2012, California’s Department of Toxic Substances revealed that some products claiming to be non-toxic and even “three free” still contained the toxic chemicals.4 For instance:5
- 10 of 12 nail polishes that claimed to be free of toluene contained the substance
- 5 of 7 nail polishes that claimed to be free of all three chemicals actually contained one or more at elevated levels
As noted by Rebecca Sutton, Ph.D., senior scientist with Environmental Working Group:6
“Whether cosmetics products are mislabeled or not, the truth is many personal care products are delivering a number of highly suspicious chemicals into our bodies…
The industry is largely unregulated, allowing cosmetics companies to use any mix of chemicals they choose. Professional products found in salons are not required to provide consumers with even the most basic information on their ingredients.”
The Next Generation of Nail Polishes Are ‘5 Free’
Three-free nail polishes are now relatively common, although, as the California study showed, you can’t necessarily take the label at face value. The “next generation” of polish has taken it a step further and (supposedly) removed five harmful toxins. Five-free nail polish should be free from DBP, toluene, and formaldehyde, plus:
- Formaldehyde resin: Although formaldehyde resin hasn’t been linked to cancer like regular formaldehyde, it’s a skin allergen known to cause dermatitis. It can also off-gas formaldehyde and may contain residual levels of formaldehyde.
- Camphor: This is a scented substance derived from the wood of the camphor tree. It can cause nausea, dizziness, and headaches when inhaled, especially in large doses, making it a concern for nail technicians.
If a nail polish is five-free does that mean it’s safe? Not necessarily. A single nail polish can contain dozens of chemicals, and, as is the case with most cosmetics, it’s a largely unregulated industry.
Almost 13,000 chemicals are used in cosmetics, and only about 10 percent have been evaluated for safety. And although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually has direct authority to regulate harmful ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products, it doesn't exercise it…
What does this mean for a health-conscious person like yourself? When you use nail polish, you’re taking a chance that you’re applying harmful chemicals to your nails, even if it claims to be non-toxic. As pediatrician Dr. Maja Castillo told the Huffington Post:7
"I don't think there have been any definitive studies that show that nail polish alone is enough to cause any harm… But I think that the risks outweigh any potential 'benefits.'"
This may be especially true for children, who are likely to chew on their nails and end up ingesting much of the polish. But regardless of its intended recipient, if you’re going to paint your nails your best bet is to choose a reputable eco-friendly brand that is water-based and centered around using natural, non-toxic ingredients. If you visit a nail salon, bring your own natural polish with you, or visit a green salon that offers such products. Alternatively, try the natural option below for making your nails shine…
A Natural Way to Create Beautiful Nails
Simple buffing can create a nice, smooth sheen to your nails, without using any nail polish whatsoever. An added boon is that it may actually help your nails grow stronger and longer due to increased circulation, and you won't have to worry about chipped nail polish either. The following video demonstrates how to buff your own nails.