Many women who express concern about what they put on their skin tend to be more indulgent about their choice of nail polish. Full disclosure—I was one of them. I accepted noxious nail polish as a fact of life, like Styrofoam and disposable batteries. Perhaps the unspoken prejudice is natural nail polish won’t be as durable, or worse, duller, than conventional brands. We’ve become habituated to the fumes, and have come to unconsciously define nail polish by its very toxicity.
While the fumes have been around for decades, the idea of nail polish as a possibly dangerous substance caught on in 2006, when, according to the New York Times, “public health advocates began a nationwide protest concerning three compounds — often referred to as “the toxic trio” — in leading nail polish brands.”
The trio is comprised of formaldehyde, used to harden color, and two chemicals linked to birth defects: toluene, to evenly distribute color, and the plasticizer dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, to add flexibility and sheen.
While the European Union has banned the use of DBP in cosmetics since 2004, the United States Food and Drug Administration has not taken a comparable regulatory step. Many companies have voluntarily removed the toxic trio, but later testing has shown that even though the chemicals were not listed as ingredients they were in fact still present.
The risk is that trace amounts of these chemicals are absorbed through the skin or nail or that vapors are inhaled, causing damage. DBP, for example, has been linked to cancer in lab animals, and underdeveloped genitals and other long-term fertility problems in newborn boys. It’s not that the occasional application of nail polish will put you in dire straits, but cumulatively there is cause for concern—especially for those people who work in nail salons when exposure is constant.
Here is more info about what may be lurking in your lacquer.
Used as a solvent for dyes and as a plasticizer to prevent nail polishes from becoming brittle, this phthalate is classified by the EU as a suspected endocrine disruptor and as toxic to reproduction. Its use in cosmetics is not restricted in the Unites States. Not only has the EU banned the use in cosmetics, it’s also classified as very toxic to aquatic organisms.
Seriously? Yup—it’s in your nail polish. Formaldehyde is a common ingredient in nail hardeners in concentrations of up to five per cent. In nail polish, tosylamide/formaldehyde resin is used, and it often listed under the name formalin. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.
Toluene is a moderate skin irritant that with prolonged contact can cause dermatitis, irritate the eyes, throat and lungs, damage the nervous system and potentially harm an unborn child. Inhaling toluene can affect the central nervous system causing slight drowsiness and headache at low levels and damage the nose, throat and respiratory tract at increased levels.
If you are a devoted mani/pedi enthusiast, this doesn’t mean forswearing polish. Just do your research to find the safest brands. The Environmental Working Group maintains a comprehensive cosmetics database at www.ewg.org/skindeep, or you can check out the following toxic trio-free brands at Vitacost.com: Mineral Fusion, Pacifica, Honeybee Gardens, Suncoat and Gabriel Organics.