The Toxic Trio in Nail Polish

Photo: istockphoto.com/Lise Gagne
A new report shows that many popular brands have polished up their formulas

Women's fingernails are one of the most accessorized body parts. We slap on fake nails, rainbow colours, jewels and stickers without much thought. But we should be paying more attention to what’s in our polish.

Examining our polish

In the past few years, watchdogs in the cosmetic industry have blown the whistle on toxic chemical exposure in nail salons and nail care products. When Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE) http://www.womenandenvironment.org/, an environmental health organization, published its Glossed Over report, three chemicals used in nail polish were examined: toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). All three have been shown to pose a serious threat to women’s health, especially with frequent exposure.

In fact, a survey conducted by the Environmental Working Group in 2005 found eight brands of nail products contained formaldehyde, five contained formaldehyde resin, 37 contained toluene and 89 contained dibutyl phthalate.

Fortunately, a May 2009 report, Phasing Out the Toxic Trio, also published by WVE (in conjunction with the National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance), shows the industry is cleaning up its act. Many of the most popular nail polish brands have phased out the toxic trio and reported to WVE that their products are now “three-free.” But as the report shows, there are still a few companies using potentially dangerous formulations, or that declined to respond to WVE’s survey at all. There is also still too little known about the long-term health effects of working in nail salons.

Before we review the brands you (and your favourite salon) should and shouldn’t be using, let’s polish up on our chemistry.

Smooth finish but reproductive disruptor

Toluene is a clear, colourless liquid commonly used in nail polish as well as in paints, thinners and inks. It gives nail polish that nice smooth finish and helps everything to dry quicker. But when this volatile chemical is released into the air, it causes symptoms of headache, dizziness, fatigue and irritated eyes, nose and throat. Toluene has also been found to be toxic to the kidneys and liver and possibly a reproductive disruptor. It's of particular concern to pregnant women since it’s transmitted to the fetus via the placenta and then onto the infant through breast milk. Toluene is banned in Europe.

Preservative with a punch

Formaldehyde is a preservative with a distinct odour that every high school biology student remembers. It acts as a nail hardener and helps stop polish from chipping. But this known human carcinogen is an irritant to the eyes, nose and throat. Breathing in the fumes often leads to coughing and wheezing, while exposure through contact to the skin results in rashes and other skin irritations. Other symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, dizziness and immune dysfunction. This chemical has also been banned in Europe.

Shiny nails with a price

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), found in plastics, personal care products, paints, pesticides as well as nail polish, is one of the most commonly used chemicals in consumer products. In personal care products it acts as a plasticizer, adding flexibility and sheen. But shiny nails come at a high price since this chemical is a recognized carcinogen linked to birth defects and damage to reproductive organs. There is an increasing number of studies that also suggest it’s toxic to the liver, lungs and kidneys. Exposure occurs through inhalation, absorption through skin and ingestion in food.


Of particular concern is the long-term health of nail salon technicians. They were found to have high levels of occupational asthma and more problems with attention and cognitive processing and a reduced sense of smell. In response to these findings, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics convinced two leading manufacturers, OPI and Sally Hansen, to remove these chemicals from their nail products. But the research is still thin on the long-term health effects of daily exposure to nail salon products.

Protect yourself

While there’s no such thing as a completely green nail polish, you can choose one with healthier ingredients. Can’t remember which chemicals and brands to avoid? WVE has also published a handy guide that slips easily into a wallet. Another option is to bring your own polish to your nail salon and encourage them to use the alternatives being offered.


Safe alternatives, according the Phasing Out the Toxic Trio report, which relied on manufacturers to self-report their formulations:


If your favourite brand is not on this list, carefully read the label or contact the company to find out what chemicals it contains.