Many labeled the new polishes as “3-Free” but are not necessarily free of toxic compounds

nail polish - free toxic

Prolonged exposure to certain chemicals found in in nail polishes, glues, removers, and other salon products may cause serious health problems to pregnant women.

Manicurists who inhale the harmful chemicals for hours at a time have the highest risk of developing serious side effects.

Customers enjoying regular salon visits are exposed as well, but not with as great of magnitude as workers.


Chemicals of particular concern to nail salon workers are:

  1. TolueneThis chemical occurs naturally in crude oil. It smells similarly to paint thinner. When someone breathes toluene in, it goes into the lungs and then into the bloodstream. The body either changes toluene to a less harmful chemical and stores it in fat tissue or gets rid of it.

    Prolonged exposure to toluene can have damaging effects. These can be small, like temporary headaches or dizziness, or devastating, causing vision and hearing loss, or birth defects to human fetuses.

  2. FormaldehydeThis cancer-causing chemical is typically used to make fertilizer, disinfectants, and wood preservatives. It is also naturally produced by the human body in small amounts.

    Effects of inhalation can range from eye, nose, and throat irritation, to chest pains and bronchitis.

    Effects of swallowing formaldehyde can result in corrosion of the GI tract and formation of ulcers in the mouth, esophagus, and stomach.

  3. Dibutyl PhthalateThis chemical is used to make plastic materials like shower curtains and car interiors soft and flexible. It is also found in many nail polishes and nail polish hardeners. The chemical is known to cause developmental and reproductive problems in mice, but the same effects have not yet been confirmed for humans.
  4. Ethyl MethacrylateEthyl methacrylate (EMA) is a clear, liquid material used to make acrylic nails. Inhaling its vapors can contribute to the development of eye irritation, respiratory issues, and swelling and blistering of the skin (also known as dermatitis). Pregnant women exposed to EMA risk their child being born with birth defects.


Women who are, or may become, pregnant may risk miscarriage or having their children be born with defects like a cleft lip, club foot, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or heart defects.

Visible defects can be spotted right away, but it may take years and various tests to identify internal issues like heart defects.

These devastating injuries can have lifelong effects, with the most severe defects shortening the child’s life expectancy.

Consumers are growing more knowledgeable about the potential health effects of nail polish, and manufacturers have taken action.

They have started removing potentially toxic ingredients and labeling their products as being free of those substances.

However, these labels aren’t always accurate, and reformulated products aren’t necessarily safer, according to a report in Environmental Science & Technology.

Plasticizers improve flexibility and chip resistance in nail polish.

In the 2000s, concerns grew about the use of the plasticizer di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP), a reproductive and developmental toxicant.

In response, nail polish manufacturers began switching to other plasticizers.

Many labeled the new polishes as “3-Free,” meaning the products lacked the “toxic trio” of DnBP, toluene and formaldehyde.

The trend spread, and labels now tout the absence of as many as 13 different chemicals, though there’s little standardization about which chemicals are excluded.

But recent evidence shows that some substitute ingredients, such as the plasticizer triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), also may be harmful.

This raises the concern that one toxic chemical is being replaced by others, a practice known as “regrettable substitution.”

To give producers, consumers and nail salons guidance in designing and selecting safer nail polish, Anna Young and colleagues studied DnBP substitutes in polish and evaluated the types and accuracy of plasticizer labeling.

The scientists examined 40 different nail polishes and found that manufacturers have generally removed DnBP and are reducing the amount of TPHP they use.

Yet some producers are using similar toxic substitutes, such as bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, sometimes without disclosing the compounds.

The researchers also found that polishes with labels that promote fewer ingredients don’t necessarily have a reduced toxicity.

“With little standardization or validation of the claims, it’s challenging for consumers and nail salon workers to know what these labels really mean for health,” Young says.

“It’s not as simple as what substances aren’t in nail polish; we have to address harmful chemicals still present or added as substitutes.”

More information: “Phthalate and Organophosphate Plasticizers in Nail Polish: Evaluation of Labels and Ingredients” Environmental Science & Technology (2018).

Journal reference: Environmental Science & Technology search and more info website

Provided by: American Chemical Society


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