Many nail products contain toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens. Learn about what nail polish is made of and the safest nail polish brands.
A manicure may seem harmless, but recent scrutiny of the cosmetic industry has raised questions about the safety of what nail polish is made of.
In 2015, an investigation by The New York Times called attention to the dangers that repeated exposure to these potentially toxic chemicals could pose for nail salon workers. These hazards, the study found, include respiratory trouble, skin disorders, increased risk of miscarriage, and even cancer.
The investigation coincided with increased public concern about the safety of chemicals in nail polishes, glues, removers, and acrylic nails for everyone who uses them, including salon customers and those who do their nails at home.
Many warnings about the safety of nail polish focus on potentially toxic ingredients to avoid, known as the “big five” — dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, toluene, and camphor.
Dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, minimizes chipping in nail polish. Phthalates have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system and interfere with normal hormone functioning. Few human studies have been done on DBP specifically, but animal studies have linked exposure to liver damage and decreased fertility.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) warns that DBP can cause skin, eye, nose, and throat irritation, as well as nausea and vomiting. In Australia, it is classified as a risk to the human reproductive system, and the European Union (EU) has banned its use in personal care products.
Formaldehyde strengthens polish and prolongs shelf life by protecting against bacteria growth. Miniscule amounts of formaldehyde, such as the amount the body naturally produces or that is found in some vaccines, are non-toxic. However, at higher levels formaldehyde is classified as a carcinogen. Frequent exposure can also cause dizziness, skin disorders, allergic reactions, nausea, and respiratory problems.
Formaldehyde resin is a by-product of formaldehyde. It has been the focus of fewer tests than other nail polish chemicals, but preliminary studies indicate that it may cause allergic reactions and be linked to organ toxicity.
Toluene creates a smooth application and finish in nail polish. It is also used in many nail polish removers and has a sweet, strong smell. This is the result of its highly toxic fumes, which have been linked to headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and insomnia. Prolonged exposure has been shown to cause damage to the nervous system, cardiac arrhythmia, and harm to unborn children. Toluene, like DBP, is banned from use in cosmetics in the EU.
Camphor, which gives nail polishes their glossy finish, is used in small amounts in cold treatments and nasal sprays. However, some studies have called the use of camphor in personal care products into question, as repeated exposure has been linked to allergic reactions and skin irritations. At high doses, camphor toxicity can cause vomiting, respiratory distress, and even seizures.
Several cosmetic brands now produce nail polishes classified as “five-free,” which means they do not contain any of the big five chemicals. Polishes classified as “three-free” do not have DBP, formaldehyde, or toluene.
Unfortunately, the big five are not the only chemicals of concern in nail products. Recent studies have identified two other serious hazards.
Methacrylate compounds are found in many nail polish primers, glues, and artificial nails. Inhaling these particles can cause difficulty breathing as well as irritating the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. Animal studies have shown that some methacrylate compounds are highly toxic and may cause cell mutations. They are on OSHA’s list of hazardous chemicals found in nail salons.
Triphenyl phosphate, or TPHP, is added to some nail polishes to replace phthalates. However, animal studies have shown that TPHP is also an endocrine disruptor and can affect the balance of sex hormones.
Research published in 2016 by Duke University and the Environmental Working Group, which had women use polish that contained TPHP, showed that it is absorbed into the body quickly. Within 10 to 14 hours of painting their nails, all participants had substantially elevated levels of metabolized TPHP in their urine. The study also found that many nail polish brands contained TPHP but did not disclose it on their ingredient list. (The Environmental Working Group publishes a database of polishes that contain TPHP.)
To protect yourself from potentially hazardous chemicals in nail products, use brands that are three-free or five-free, as well as free from TPHP. Choose nail salons that are well ventilated, for both your safety and that of the people who work there. Avoid acrylic nails and nail glues to prevent exposure to methacrylate compounds.
Is there pregnancy-safe nail polish? If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or accompanied by a minor, it may be wise to avoid nail salons completely. And anyone can protect their health by limiting manicures and pedicures to a very occasional treat.
March 25, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN