Few luxuries seem simpler or more harmless than a manicure or pedicure. However, if you aren’t careful about the brands you use then your nail polish may be exposing you to dangerous toxins.
Chemicals in nail polish are harmful to everyone who uses them, especially those who are exposed repeatedly (such as manicurists, beauticians, or people who frequently have their nails done). These toxins should also be avoided by women who are pregnant or nursing, as well as children who have not yet passed puberty. To keep yourself and those around you safe, choose polishes that avoid the “Big Five” chemicals: dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, and camphor.
1. DBP (dibutyl phthalate)
Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a member of the phthalate family of chemicals, is used in nail polish to minimize chipping. Phthalates are classified as endocrine disruptors and mimic the hormone estrogen in your body. They are proven to impair the hormonal development of male fetuses, cause organ damage, and may even instigate early-onset menopause.
Though no human studies have been done on DBP, animal studies show similar results to human phthalate studies, including decreased fertility, hormonal disruption, bioaccumulation, and liver damage. The European Union banned DBP in cosmetic and personal care products, and the Australian government currently classifies DBP as a risk to the human reproductive system. In the United States, California classifies it as a reproductive and hormonal toxicant, but the federal government does not.
Toluene is the nail polish ingredient used to create a smooth application and finish. It has a sweet, pungent smell and is also found in most conventional nail polish removers. However, its fumes are highly toxic; studies have shown that exposure to toluene can cause neurological damage, decreased brain function, impaired breathing, hearing loss, and nausea. When inhaled too frequently by pregnant women, it may result in impaired fetal development. Animal studies have also shown that toluene is linked to reproductive impairment, immune system toxicity, and blood cancers like malignant lymphoma.
The European Union has restricted the use of toluene in personal care products, including nail polish, and advises that pregnant women and children should not be exposed to its fumes. In California, toluene is on the state’s Prop 65 list of chemicals that are harmful to fetal development.
Formaldehyde is used to harden and strengthen nail polishes, also serving as a preservative that protects against bacterial growth. Formaldehyde is naturally produced by the body in incredibly small amounts—similar to the concentration found in some vaccines. At this low level, formaldehyde is not dangerous.
However, exposure to larger doses of formaldehyde in the air or on the skin may cause cancer of the throat, nose, and blood. Nail salon workers and their children are especially at risk for chronic health problems caused by formaldehyde, including asthma, convulsions, nausea, and miscarriages. Repeated exposure can cause a build-up of fluid in the lungs and cause abnormal fetal development in pregnant women. The European Union allows only limited use of formaldehyde in personal care products, while Japan and Sweden have banned it completely.
4. Formaldehyde resin
Formaldehyde resin is a by-product of formaldehyde that makes its way into many nail polish formulas that include formaldehyde. It has been the subject of fewer human tests than the other four chemicals. However, preliminary studies show that can cause severe skin irritation and allergic reactions, skin depigmentation and loss of nerve sensation.
Camphor is the ingredient used to give conventional nail polishes their glossy, shiny appearance. It is less toxic than the first three ingredients listed above, and is sometimes used in cold remedies such as vapor rubs and nasal sprays.
However, the safety of camphor has recently been called into question. It has been shown to trigger severe skin irritation and allergic reactions when applied topically, and inhaling its fumes can cause nausea, dizziness, and headaches. Observational studies have also linked camphor exposure to organ damage, such as liver dysfunction. Camphor in personal care products is limited to a concentration of 11% in the US, and it is being phased out in markets within the European Union.
Choosing a safe nail polish
If you do want to use nail polish, choose a brand that is at least free of the “Big Three” (DBP, formaldehyde, and toluene), but aim for one free of all five hazardous chemicals. If you have your nails done at a salon, look for one that uses 3-free or 5-free polishes in order to protect both yourself and the salon’s workers.
3-Free nail polish brands
- Butter London (also paraben-free)
- Lancome (also contains no formaldehyde resin)
- OPI (though some nail strengtheners/hardeners do contain formaldehyde)
5-Free nail polish brands
- Zoya (also vegan)
- RGB (also vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free, and fair trade)
- LaCC (also cruelty-free, vegan, and made without gluten, parabens, and xylene)
- Ella + Mila (also cruelty-free, vegan, and fair-trade)
- Priti NYC
- Kure Bazaar (also cruelty-free, and contains only 15% synthetic ingredients)