Is Your Nail Polish Dangerous?

nail polish dripping
Phthalates are often used as a softener in plastic products and an additive in cosmetics like nail polish, moisturizer and fragrance. (Photo: Svetlana Solovjova/Shutterstock)

With flip-flop season here and summer just around the corner, you may be eyeing your toenails and pondering a trip to the nail salon. But have you ever looked at the teeny tiny print on the back of a nail polish bottle?

Ethyl acetate, butyl acetate, nitrocellulose, dimethyl adepate, heptane ... you get the picture. Then there's dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde — commonly referred to as the ''toxic trio."

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) is especially concerned about those three chemicals when inhaled in a nail salon. According to OSHA, dibutyl phthalate can cause nausea and irritation, while formaldehyde may cause breathing difficulty, allergic reactions and even cancer. Toulene is linked with skin problems, headache, and liver and kidney damage, as well as birth defects.

Health advocates campaigned against these substances nearly a decade ago, causing many companies to remove them from their polishes. However, advocates suspect that some companies removed them from the label and not the product themselves, reports the New York Times, or they replaced them with equally harmful substances like triphenyl phosphate.

A recent study by researchers at Duke University and Environmental Working Group suggests that a chemical called triphenyl phosphate, or TPHP, is absorbed each time we use nail polish. The hormone-disrupting chemical, a common substance in many nail polishes, was found in the bodies of women who had painted their nails with polishes that contained the ingredient. The study was published in the journal Environment International.

Although the study group was relatively small with only 26 women, the discovery that our bodies can absorb the chemicals found in nail polish was of concern to the researchers.

“It is very troubling that nail polish being marketed to women and teenage girls contains a suspected endocrine disruptor,” said study co-author Johanna Congleton, Ph.D., MSPH, a senior scientist at EWG. “It is even more troubling to learn that their bodies absorb this chemical relatively quickly after they apply a coat of polish.”

Researchers found that two to six hours after having painted their nails, 24 of the 26 volunteers had slightly elevated levels of TPHP in their urine. By 10 to 14 hours, the DPHP levels in all 26 participants had risen to nearly seven times normal.

TPHP is used to make nail polish more flexible and durable, but it's also used as a fire retardant in furniture.

Organic chemist Richard Sachleben, a spokesman for the American Chemical Society, told the Huffington Post that research so far on TPHP suggests the chemical's toxicity is low in humans, with mild irritation as the primary result. He said the study offered sound science, but pointed out that it doesn't establish whether higher levels of the chemical actually harmed people.

The most worrisome issue about TPHP is its potential to interfere with hormones, but Sachleben points out that so far studies have only been done with animals or show correlation (not causation) in people.

Should you stop painting your nails?

little girl painting nail polish on doll
Some pediatricians suggest avoiding nail polish for kids or using water-based, safer formulas. CroMary/Shutterstock

“People get really upset about phthalates in plastics, but they don’t think about what’s in the cosmetics they’re applying directly to their skin,” study co-author Kate Hoffman, a researcher at Duke University, told Yahoo News . “The skin is an organ that takes it all in.”

Although Hoffman won't go so far as to suggest avoiding mani-pedis altogether, she does suggest checking the label for TPHP. She cautions, however, that doesn't guarantee your polish is without the potentially harmful chemical. (Use Skin Deep, the EWG's searchable cosmetics database to look for "safer" polishes.) In addition, she suggests keeping your polish off the cuticle and surrounding skin to minimize letting your skin absorb chemicals in the polish.

“No one is saying that occasional application of nail polish will cause long-term health consequences,” Janet Nudelman, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, told the New York Times. But some groups may be at higher risk.

Nail salon employees, obviously, have a greater chance of problems because they inhale fumes and may have contact with polish all day. In addition, some pediatricians suggests children avoid polish because they may chew on their fingers.

Don't want to take any chances? Try buffing your nails. It will give you a super shiny, natural look that looks polished but without any potential chemical harm. Here's a video that shows how to do it: