What to Look For – And Avoid! – on Nail Polish Labels

If you take your health seriously – or even if you’re just generally trying to take baby steps on the road to better health – you’ve probably long been in the habit of reading labels: on our containers, our cleaning products, toiletries, candles, and, of course, food, from the ingredients list to the use-by date. But there’s one more important place we all need to check that almost none of us do: our nail polish.

Think about it— how often have you actually considered what goes into making our favorite fingertip colors? Maybe because it’s impermanent, maybe because we can clip and file our nails, maybe because it simply never occurred to us— whatever the reason, even the most health-conscious individuals find that their consideration of what they put on their bodies ends where the nail bed starts.

But our nails are part of our bodies, after all, and we need to consider how we treat them. That means taking a closer look at nail polish ingredients, and the dangers some of them can pose.

Yes, dangers. Now, we don’t want to scare you or sound an alarm that has you swearing off nail polish altogether. All you need is our guide to what to avoid when you’re choosing your perfect polish, and what to look for instead. Read on.

What to Avoid

The biggest things to look out for when you’re contemplating a new bottle of polish? What the Pollution Prevention Branch of the Department of Toxic Substances Control for the California Environmental Protection Agency refers to as the “toxic trio”: dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde.

Yup, formaldehyde— you know, the compound used in embalming, the one that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program says is “known to be a human carcinogen.” That pretty pink polish is starting to look a lot less lovely, now isn’t it?

What exactly does it do to our bodies? According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), formaldehyde is linked to

Nasal and eye irritation, neurological effects, and increased risk of asthma and/or allergy [. . .] Eczema and changes in lung function have been observed [. . .] Decreased body weight, gastrointestinal ulcers, liver and kidney damage were observed in animals orally exposed.

“Now wait,” we can hear some of you protesting. “I’m not going to be drinking my nail polish. There are tons of chemical compounds just floating around in the air. This worry seems extreme.”

Maybe— but we don’t think so. (There’s also the fact that we’d rather be safe than sorry.) A study performed by Duke University and Environmental Working Group demonstrated that compounds like formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DPHP) and triphenyl phosphate (TPP) can all be absorbed into the body via nail polish application.

What’s more, the study tested the urine samples of participants both before and after their manicures, and found that:

About ten to 14 hours after getting their nails painted, the participants had DPHP levels that were on average seven times higher than they were before the experiment. About 10 to 20 hours later, the chemical seemed to peak and decrease, indicating that the nail polish could be a source of short-term TPP exposure.

Why are these compounds so scary? DPHP has been linked to developmental defects, liver and kidney failure, reproductive problems, and endocrine (hormonal) disruption.

Meanwhile, toluene – the final of the “toxic trio” – can, according to the CDC,

have an effect on your nervous system (brain and nerves). Nervous system effects can be temporary, such as headaches, dizziness, or unconsciousness. However, effects such as incoordination, cognitive impairment, and vision and hearing loss may become permanent with repeated exposure, especially at concentrations associated with intentional solvent abuse. High levels of toluene exposure during pregnancy, such as those associated with solvent abuse, may lead to retardation of mental abilities and growth in children. Other health effects of potential concern may include immune, kidney, liver, and reproductive effects.


Even if you’re not going for regular manicures – or if all this information is having you swear off the practice for good – we should be concerned about cosmetologists and manicurists, too. The American Journal of Epidemiology showed that cancer rates are higher among them than among other women of similar age.

The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) even has an entire section on “Health Hazards in Nail Salons,” where they have a list of potentially dangerous chemicals that includes the “toxic trio” as well as things like acetone, methacrylic acid, quaternary ammonium compounds and more.

Who knew that something meant to be so pretty could be so, well, ugly?

What to Do and Get Instead

So what’s a beauty addict to do, other than swear off nail polish and lead a strike to shut down dangerous nail parlors? Well, first off, the answer is – somewhat counterintuitively – not to panic.

As American Chemical Society spokesman Richard Sherman told The Huffington Post, these studies are very new. What’s more, in the case of the TPP compound, “the chemical is a ‘low priority’ for further research because both acute and chronic toxicity is low in humans and the outcome amounts to mild irritation.” Studies so far show mere correlation, which is not (necessarily) proof of causation.

And if you’re worried anyway, or want to help the plight of manicurists? Insist on, buy and use non-toxic polishes! Bright Side points out that many nail polishes have special labeling to help you out: “3-Free” means the polish is free of the “toxic trio,” and “5-Free” means its free of those, plus camphor and derivative formaldehyde resins.

Care2 also has a list of 12 non-toxic nail polish brands here on their site.

When in doubt? Like you would for any other thing you put on or in your body, read the label, friends!


Was this nail polish information new to you, or have you heard some or all of this stuff before? Have you had, or know anybody who has, experience with the side effects of these compounds before? Do you know anybody who works in a nail parlor? Are there any great non-toxic polish brands you can share? Let us and your fellow readers know!

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