I know, I know. There are more important topics to discuss in the world, but today we are going to talk about nail polish. I’ve been hearing my crunchy friends criticize the health risks of toxic nail polish, and frankly I’ve covered my ears and hummed a happy tune.
I’ve converted to homemade lotion; I do my best to be green; and I source local, organic, sustainable food. With all these health and eco-conscious things accounted for and more, I draw my line at my mani-pedi’s! You see, here in Southern California, we spend quite a bit of time in flip-flops. Add that to a culture of Hollywood-inspired beauty and glamour, and it’s no wonder there’s a nail salon on nearly every street.
As a busy working mom, a trip to the salon means a precious, inexpensive retreat from the hustle and bustle of my hectic life. Someone else fusses over me for a change, pampering me with a routine of cleansing, kneading, and prettying. The nail salon is my sanctuary, and I don’t really want to give that up.
Recently my almost three year old discovered the joy of painted fingers and toes. There is nothing sweeter than a mommy-daughter date to the salon, but with neon pink on my little one’s nails, I finally started to worry about the health risks…
Is nail polish REALLY toxic?
Until recently, many polishes contained a set of ingredients called the “toxic trio” – toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and formaldehyde.
Toluene is a clear liquid that makes nail polish smooth and quick drying. It is toxic to the liver and kidneys.
DBP acts as a binder to make nail polish last longer. It can contribute to developmental and reproductive problems, and both toluene and DBP can cause dizziness, headaches and fatigue.
Formaldehyde hardens polish and keeps it from chipping, but it is also a carcinogen that can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose and throat.
The nail bed is surprisingly permeable, so if you’re wearing nail polishes that contain these ingredients, they will be absorbed through the nail bed. Not good.
Here’s the good news:
While the United States does not currently restrict chemicals used in beauty products, since the mid-2000’s many brands have independently removed some or all of the toxic trio from their polish formulas. In fact, the two most commons brands I see at nail salons (this one and this one) do not contain toluene, DBP or formaldehyde.
Destined to be my new favorite, this brand of polish, is toxic trio-free, has fun colors, AND goes on beautifully with only one coat!
According to this extensive report from the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, when the offending compounds are removed from nail polish, the reports of health issues are ‘sparse’.
You can check your favorite polish brands by visiting the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep site.
Truly non-toxic nail polish
While many companies have eliminated the toxic trio, these nail polishes may still contain chemicals that can cause allergic and respiratory reactions in those who are super sensitive. Some of these ingredients include acetates, alcohols, fragrances, chemical dyes and more.
If you’re worried about the risks of toxic nail polish, it is important to check the labels to ensure that the products you plan to use are safe.
Luckily, even if you’re pregnant or otherwise wanting to avoid chemicals, it doesn’t mean you need to miss out on pretty pink toes! Several brands of water-based polishes are available that are safe for chemically sensitive folks including this one for kids and this one that has a great selection of colors.
The catch? Water-based polish dries in the same amount of time as other mainstream nail polishes, but it can take 4 to 6 hours for the polish to reach maximum hardness and become scratch resistant. Also, because the water evaporates, the polish should be removed after a week. After that, it becomes difficult to remove. Sounds like a fair trade for truly non-toxic nail polish, no?
Do your nails need to breathe?
According to the experts, finger nails are made of keratin; they don’t need to breathe like your skin does, though continuous polish can stain and otherwise discolor the nail.
Because the nail itself is permeable though, the issue is less about the nail breathing and more about what passes through the nail to the nail bed (the skin under the nail).
Personally, I mostly only paint my toes (and not my fingernails) and try to give them a break or two in the boot-covered months of winter.
Top tips for healthy painted nails:
- Apply and remove nail polish at home or choose a well-ventilated salon for the safety of yourself and the salon workers.
- This should go without saying, but choose a salon with good hygiene practices to avoid fungus and other infections.
- Know your polish: Choose a brand that’s free of toulene, DBP and formaldehyde, and bring your own if necessary. Check your brand at the Skin Deep site.
- Nail polish remover (acetone) can be drying to the nail, so avoid frequent polish changes and use in a well-ventilated area.
- Dispose of old nail polish properly: Nail polish made before 2007 is much more likely to contain the toxic-trio, so these need to go. But DON’T pitch them in the trash… Instead dispose of nail polish the same way you’d dispose of any other oil based paint or solvent to avoid leaching toxicity into the soil and groundwater.
Are you worried about toxic nail polish? Have you found a water-based polish that you like?