Made famous in the 1940s by Rita Hayworth’s iconic red hues, nail polish has become an integral part of many peoples’ beauty regimen. The trend sparked in the 1920s from the appeal of high gloss car paint, and a formula was adapted for use on the nail to create a similarly shiny and colorful finish.
While consumers and producers at the time didn’t likely realize the possible side effects of the ingredients, the growing popularity of the product lead researchers to strive to better understand them and their impacts on human health.
In 2006, the now-famous “toxic trio” of Formaldehyde, Toluene and Dibutyl phthalate became a hot topic, and many U.S. brands vowed to eliminate their usage. But what are these ingredients; are they actually dangerous, and is there really any way to avoid them?
Because nails aren’t made up of living cells, it doesn’t occur to many people that nail polish, regardless of ingredient content, could be a threat to our health. However, nails are a permeable surface, meaning chemicals or ingredients we place on the nail plate (the hard, top part of the nail) can still make their way into our bodies via the nail bed underneath. Polish can makes its way into our system numerous other ways in addition to just where it’s applied, including open wounds like the dreaded hang nail, or into our lungs from breathing in the fumes.
Formaldehyde, what is used to preserve bodies after death, is used in nail polish to harden the polish. It is a known human carcinogen (an agent directly involved with causing cancer), linked to a slew of additional health issues such as eye and skin irritation and respiratory impairment. Toluene, a derivative of petroleum, is used to help polish settle less in the bottle and require less mixing. It is a volatile compound that causes irritation to lungs when inhaled, liver damage, and affects the central nervous system.
A plasticizer that prevents chipping, Dibutyl phthalate (or DBP) is also a known human carcinogen that is known to cause reproductive and thyroid problems. In 2004, the European Union banned all of these ingredients from being used in beauty and personal care products due to their toxicity, so it isn’t a surprise that U.S. consumers seem to be heading in the same direction.
While many brands claim to have eliminated these nasty chemicals from their products, consumers aren’t in the clear just yet. Camphor, a rust repellent that can cause seizures in large doses, and Formaldehyde resin, which is actually a combination of Toluene and Formaldehyde, are still widely used by most traditional nail polish brands.
While the media buzz may not be as loud on these two ingredients, the toxicity and known health issues of each are pointing in a clear direction. Brands that exclude these ingredients in addition to the “toxic trio” are labeled as “5-free.”
With so many brands making false claims about their ingredients, it’s understandable that consumers are a little skeptical. In order to take a proactive approach to your next polish purchase, keep these tips in mind:
- A company’s mission is a good, general way to judge their commitment to consumer safety. Many ethical brands will oftentimes align with your other values such as not testing on animals, or by using recycled or sustainably-sourced packaging.
- Water-based polishes are all free of the toxic 5, as well as synthetic colors and a variety of other chemicals. While they don’t tend to last as long, they are certainly the least toxic option.