Take a look at your hands, what do they look like?
If you’re a woman, your fingernails are probably painted with nail polish.
In many career environments and social circles, nail polish is seen as an essential part of proper hygiene and presentation. But this social expectation has serious health effects.
A new study conducted by Duke University and the Environmental Working Group and published in Environment International found that chemicals in nail polish can enter the bloodstream in noticeable amounts within as little as two hours of application.
The study examined the urine samples of 24 women for diphenyl phosphate or DPHP, which forms when the body metabolizes TPHP, a chemical toxin found in nearly every person on earth. Within 10-14 hours of nail polish application, serum levels of DPHP had increased by nearly sevenfold (1).
The chemicals can contribute towards infertility, hormone-related cancers like breast and ovarian cancer, prostate conditions, thyroid disorders, neurological issues, diabetes, and even obesity (2).
“Nails aren’t permeable to most molecules, but TPHP could be absorbed into the cuticle or around the nail,” says Johanna Congleton, a senior scientist with EWG who also worked on the study.
They also make their way into the bloodstream after being inhaled (in the case of being in a closed room or nail salon during application) or being ingested (by nail biting).
“It is very troubling that nail polish being marketed to women and teenage girls contains a suspected endocrine disruptor,” says Johanna Congleton, Ph.D., MSPH, a senior scientist at EWG and co-author of the study. “It is even more troubling to learn that their bodies absorb this chemical relatively quickly after they apply a coat of polish.”
Although the chemical isn’t a necessary ingredient, it functions as a plasticizer in nail polish to increase its flexibility and durability.
After the initial study, the same group of researchers examined 10 different nail polishes for triphenyl phosphate, and discovered the chemical in 8 of the samples tested.
Two of the polishes that tested positively for the chemical did not disclose it on their product label.
These brands were easily available in drug stores and beauty shops throughout North America.
Other Chemicals in Nail Polish
Here are just a few chemicals routinely found in nail polish and other nail products (3).
Formaldehyde is a well-known carcinogen that can cause respiratory distress if inhaled. Symptoms of exposure include coughing, asthma, and an itchy throat. Asthmatic or people with other respiratory conditions should avoid exposure to formaldehyde when possible (4).
Dibutyl phthalate is a plasticizer and solvent that is also an endocrine disruptor. Chronic exposure through ingestion can cause liver and kidney failure in children.
Toluene, a mild skin irritant considered a developmental toxicity hazard. This chemical is dangerous to nursing or expectant mothers, as it can absorb the bloodstream and find its way into breastmilk. When inhaled, the chemical can cause drowsiness, headaches, and irritation of the respiratory tract (5).
Who’s at Risk?
Nail polish is an accessory few people think about twice before applying. Many mothers even find joy in painting their child’s nails to match their outfit.
Nails Magazine reported in 2014 that market surveys found that 97 % of American girls ages 12-14 used nail products, including polish, and 14 percent of all teens and tweens used them daily (6).
According to EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetics database, more than 1,500 nail products including polishes made by Sally Hansen, OPI and Wet N Wild, contain TPHP (7).
The EWG study found that each layer of nail polish increased chemical exposure, with clear polish (used as a base and top coat for the polish) containing the highest level of DPHP.
“It is alarming to think my ruby red nail polish could come with a side of toxic ingredients that could ultimately end up in my body,” said Entrepreneur and eco expert Erin Schrode, co-founder of the non-profit organization Turning Green, which educates teenagers about healthy and safe lifestyle choices.
“We cannot control far too many exposures to harmful chemicals in our world today, but each of us can become informed and spread the word, support legislation that protects our health, and make smarter choices whenever possible.”
How to Protect Yourself
One main problem with continuing to use nail polish is that labeling doesn’t necessarily reflect the contents of the polish. A study has found that even toxin-free nail polish may have high levels of these toxic chemicals (8).
“The labeling does not always reflect the ingredients,” says scientist Valetti Lang, acting manager of the Pollution Prevention Branch of the Department of Toxic Substances Control for the California Environmental Protection Agency (9).
“The bottom-line finding is we can’t trust the labels on some of these nail salon products that are claiming to be free of these toxic chemicals,” says Rebecca Sutton, PhD, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group who reviewed the report. “These chemicals have well-established health concerns…this is not a minor concern for consumers,” she says (10).
Needless to say, there are countless reasons why you should avoid nail polish at all cost, especially nail salons, which contain high levels of toxic fumes.
Instead, skip the polish and buff your nails for a natural shine.
You can also push back your cuticles and apply coconut oil to your cuticle and nail. If you’re desperate for a pop of color, here’s a list of non-toxic products you can try: