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Behind the Label: nail polish

Pat Thomas

26th November, 2009

It may look pretty, but the unmistakable odour of nail polish betrays a cocktail of toxic ingredients

Should you find yourself browsing through the astonishingly large selection of nail polishes in the beauty section of any store you'll likely find a lot of enticing colours with yummy sounding names like Red Caviar, Tropical Spirit, Mulberry Wine, and Grape Sorbet.

But beyond the pretty colours and reassuringly natural names, the reality of using nail polish is the chemical stench you get while putting it on and a label full of ingredients which are decidedly less enticing and romantic.

Looking good, smelling bad

When you put something on your body that smells that bad and has a 'flammable' warning on the bottle, it is worth at least considering what's in it and whether it really is a beauty essential.

The unmistakable odour of nail polish comes from a mix of alcohols, solvents and resins/plastics that give polish its ability to stick to the nail, deliver an intense colour and resist chipping and peeling.

The solvents in nail polish mostly help it dry faster (so-called safer water based polishes may still contain the same toxic colours and plastics as solvent-based ones, they just take longer to dry). These solvents are the same volatile organic compounds (VOCs) you get in household paints and varnishes and so can provoke the same adverse effects such as headaches, fatigue, difficulty breathing, and eye, skin and airway irritation. Most VOCs are also carcinogenic and neurotoxic.

The Toxic Trio

A vast number of ingredients can go into making a single bottle of nail polish but eco campaigners generally focus on what is known as the 'toxic trio' that users need to be aware of: dibutyl phthalate, toluene compounds and formaldehyde.

Phthalates are used to soften plastic, and are hormone disrupting. Studies have linked phthalates to early puberty in girls and low sperm counts in men. Environmental campaigners believe phthalate exposure may contribute to the rising number of uterine problems in women and testicular cancer in men as well as reproductive abnormalities such as hypospadias in male children.

It may also be one of the contributing factors to the rise in infertility in both men and women. The substance dibutyl phthalate (DBP) has long been a common ingredient in nail polish.

Repeated and heavy exposure to DBP may cause nausea and/or vomiting, watery eyes, dizziness and headache. Long-term exposures are linked to kidney and liver damage. DBP has been banned in cosmetics in the EU but it still turns up in some products from time to time.

In the US the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found DBP and other phthalates in the bloodstream of every person they tested, but still the FDA has taken no action to ban the ingredient.

Petrochemicals, anyone?

Toluene is a human reproductive and developmental toxin. It is a skin irritant and is toxic to the nervous system producing symptoms such as tiredness, confusion, weakness, drunken-type actions, and memory loss. In high levels it may affect the kidneys and liver and has been linked to birth defects in laboratory animals. When inhaled it causes extreme fatigue, mental confusion, nausea, headache and dizziness.

Formaldehyde is a common indoor air pollutant because its resins are also used in many building materials. Formaldehyde has caused cancer in the nose and throats of lab animals. Inhaling the fumes can result in watery eyes, headache, a burning throat and labored breathing. Even short term inhalation can cause throat irritation, coughing and shortness of breath in sensitive individuals, and the chemical can easily be absorbed into the skin and can cause rashes.

And the rest...

But even without these ingredients (and many manufacturers are trying to clean up their acts) nail polish is a pretty evil mixture. One of its key ingredients is nitrocellulose, a long-lasting, film-forming agent derived from cellulose. Sounds almost natural, right? Well, bear in mind that before nitrocellulose was put into nail polish, it was used as a component of automobile paint by chemists. It also an ingredient in the explosives used in fireworks and dynamite.

Nitrocellulose is an entirely man-made substance, not found in nature. Its vapours are irritating to skin, eyes and lungs and because of its widespread use it is a fairly common industrial pollutant found in our water supplies.

Most of the colours used in nail polish are synthetic colours associated with a range of neurotoxic and carcinogenic effects. Although nail polishes do sometimes make use of natural colouring ingredients like mica to give them sparkle and shimmer, don't let yourself feel too comfortable. Mica is a naturally occurring substance but mining it is dangerous and relies heavily on the labour of women and children.

Children working in mica mines can go work more than 20 feet below ground to search and dig for the mineral. Working in loose soil is part of the operation and many instances of deaths have been recorded as a result of collapse of ground on top of workers. Occupational diseases such as silicosis, asthma and bronchitis are common amongst the children and adults (usually small women) who mine the mica that is so widely used in cosmetics.

In Andhra Pradesh, India, water contamination in the areas surrounding the mica mines have given rise to a range of health problems such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and eosinophillia, silicosis and tuberculosis.

Other ingredients in nail polish include:

• Butyl acetate: irritating to skin, eyes and respiratory tract.
• Camphor: irritating to irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. A CNS disrupter associated with dizziness, confusion, nausea and twitching muscles. Readily absorbed through body tissues.
• Isopropyl alcohol: irritating to eyes and mucous membranes; central nervous system depression. Prolonged contact can cause eczema and sensitivity. Animal studies show inhalation can damage the liver.
• Styrene compounds: like toluene and formaldehyde, styrene is a VOC associated with irritation of the skin, eyes and the upper respiratory tract. Chronic exposure affects the central nervous system producing symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue and weakness and may interfere with kidney function. Based on data from animal studies styrene is also considered a potential human carcinogen.

To make nail polishes harder wearing and more chip resistant some brands are also now including ingredients like polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, or Teflon).

Teflon belongs to the same family of perfluorinated chemicals as Scotchguard and a range of other fabric treatments such as Stainmaster and Gore-Tex. Perfluorinates are considered carcinogens, reproductive toxins and immune system toxins.

A report by the US Environmental Working Group on one particular perfluorinated chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), revealed that this substance can be found in the blood of some 90 per cent of US citizens - in some at levels as high as those found in workers at factories producing perfluorinates. PFCs are virtually indestructible and widespread in the environment and most observers believe that we have not yet begun to understand their full impact on human health or the environment.

Taking it off

Once that long lasting plastic coating of nail polish has dried on your nail, it then needs to be removed with a strong solvent. This essentially is what nail polish remover is. Nail polish remover generally contains things like acetone (irritating to the eyes and lungs) and ethyl acetate (respiratory system and eye irritant; narcotic and neurotoxin and damaging to liver and kidneys). These can be drying to skin and can weaken nails, making them look worse over time.

What are my options?

If you are an adult you really only have two choices: don't use nail polish, or use it and accept that it is a toxic mix.

If you are a parent the most responsible thing to do is not to expose your children (who are much more sensitive to the effects of toxic chemicals) to the toxic soup on the end of your fingers. And please don't paint the baby's nails just because it makes her look so 'cute'!

There are some exceptions such as the clear varnishes made by Provida which make use of more natural lacquers like shellac and contain plant based alcohols. But really good nail hygiene (i.e. cleaning and trimming nails) and the occasional manicure is still the best and greenest way to have the healthiest looking nails in town.

Useful links
Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep website: contains ingredient list for the most popular nail polishes

Pat Thomas is a former editor of the Ecologist

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