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Nail Polish: Is it Dangerous?

Posted Jul 03 2013 2:01am

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Today’s guest post is written by Selina Torres.

As we work toward becoming a healthier, well-informed society, not only are we questioning what we’re putting in our bodies, but what we’re putting on them.  In recent years, the subject of nail polish has become a hot topic for debate.

What’s In Our Polish?

First and foremost, when we think of the potential damaging effects of nail polish, the chemical composition comes to mind.  Nail polishes are made of four basic ingredients:

  1. Solvents: Common solvents are ethyl acetate, butyl acetate and alcohol.  Solvents are used to dissolve and mix the other ingredients in the polish.  The amount of solvent used is based on the desired thickness and drying time of the polish.
  2. Film Formers: Almost all nail polishes on the market contain nitrocellulose .   It’s what we have to thank for the smooth surface of the polish when dry.
  3. Resins & Plasticizers: Resins and plasticizers are used to make the polish adhere to your nail bed as well as create flexibility and durability.   A combination of amyl and butyl stearate, castor oil, glycerol, fatty acids and acetic acids are those most often used.
  4. Pigment:  This is what adds color to the polish.

So, are any of the chemicals that make up nail polish harmful or toxic?  The answer isn’t as clear cut as we might hope.

The Toxic Trio

There are three chemicals found in some commercial nail polishes that have raised concerns: Toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate (DBP).  These chemicals are widely known as the toxic trio.

Toluene is a solvent used in an assortment of different nail products.   Mild exposure to toluene (100-1500 ppm) results in dizziness, feelings of inebriation similar to alcohol intoxication, headache, nausea, fatigue, confusion, and insomnia.

  • It was reviewed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel in 1987, and determined safe for cosmetic use in nail products when limited to concentrations no greater than 50 percent.
  • It was re-evaluated in 2005 and original conclusion stood.
  • The concentration of toluene in the air of a home environment after applying base coat, two coats of enamel and a top coat is between one and four ppm.
  • The concentration of toluene in the air of a professional salon environment is between 0.236 ppm or 0.260 ppm.

Formaldehyde is an important component of nail hardeners.  It has been named a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services .

  • Formaldehyde might also be listed under other names as such as “formalin” and “methylene glycol.”
  • In December 2011, The CIR Expert Panel concluded that formaldehyde and methylene glycol are safe for use in cosmetics when formulated to ensure use at the minimal effective concentration, but in no case should formalin concentration exceed 0.2% by weight.
  • CIR also found formaldehyde and methylene glycol safe under current practices of use and concentration in nail hardening products, where the concentration of formaldehyde is typically higher than the 0.2% level noted for cosmetics generally.

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is used as a plasticizer in nail polish and has been linked to birth defects in lab animals . However, the health effects of phthalates on humans are not yet fully known.   It is currently being studied by several government agencies.

  • The concern over possible negative health connotations for humans has led the European Union to ban the use Dibutyl phthalate in cosmetics.
  • The FDA has proposed a ban of DBP in cosmetics.
  • The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) permanently banned DBP in concentrations of 1000 ppm or greater in children’s toys.

Safer Polish?

Consumer outcry has caused many major brands to remove the toxic trio from their products.  Brands advertising as being “3 Free” include:

  • Butter London
  • Chanel
  • Dior
  • Essie
  • L’Oreal
  • OPI
  • Revlon
  • Sally Hansen
  • Wet ‘n’ Wild
  • Zoya

Some brands are labeled as being “5 Free”, having removed Formaldehyde Resin and camphor, which can cause allergic reactions in some consumers.

Is Going Green Worth it?

There are eco-friendly polishes on the market that are water based instead of solvent based.  These polishes are made out of an acrylic polymer emulsion wherein the acrylic polymers are suspended in water rather than being dissolved in a solvent.

All water based polishes are free of acetone, benzophenone-1, benzoyl peroxide, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), ethyl lactate or ethyl alcohol, formaldehyde, toluene and zylene.

However, all is not golden with the eco-friendly set.  Many consumers report the following problems with water based polishes:

  • Patchy application
  • Multiple coats needed
  • Long drying/curing times
  • Difficult to remove
  • Avoid immersing hands in water for up to five hours after application

Where to Go From Here

What does this all mean to the polish enthusiasts?  My advice is to proceed with caution.  If you’re really concerned about the chemicals in your nail polish, use the brands that are labeled “3 Free” or “5 Free”.   If you’re ready for the challenge, try out a water based polish.

Apply polish in a well-ventilated area to avoid fumes.   Limit application of acetone based remover to twice a month and always wash your skin immediately after use.

Most importantly, read the ingredients and stay on top of the news.  Being well educated is your best defense!

Selina Torres is a self-proclaimed makeup junkie and freelance writer for Glisten .  When she’s not writing or perusing her local cosmetic stores, she enjoys traveling, practicing Krav Maga and getting manicures.

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