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Safe, Natural Nail Polish: Is it Possible?

Posted: Beauty & Body » Hair & Nails | November 1st, 2005



By Tara Bzdok

We all know that nail polish smells awful, and most of us have assumed that those fumes are not good for our health — but what exactly are those smelly chemicals and what are the specific dangers to human health? Is there a polish out there that is completely and unquestionably safe?

The three most offensive nail color ingredients are phthalates, solvents and formaldehyde, but most brands on nail polish also contain questionable dyes, synthetic preservatives and fragrances. The European Union has adopted a “better safe than sorry” attitude toward questionable chemicals and banned both phthalates and formaldehyde from use in cosmetics sold in any of the EU countries.

But here in the United States, cosmetics don’t have to pass any sort of safety code before being sold to the public. The cosmetic industry funds the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel (CIR), which is responsible for analyzing chemicals in cosmetics only after they have hit the store shelves. After an ingredient is found to be dangerous, the manufacturer must voluntarily take the product off the market.

So basically, boys and girls, we are on our own to inform ourselves about these chemicals and make the decision to use the products or not.

Phthalate phunk
Prenatal exposure to phthalates, which are used to keep nail polish from chipping, has been found to cause birth defects in the reproductive systems of male fetuses. However, the CIR board has found phthalates to be “safe as used” in nail polish and other cosmetics such as lotions and creams, in which they are used to make the products penetrate further into the skin (and the chemicals lodge further into one’s cells).

Since many cosmetic products contain phthalates, you could potentially end up with quite a high level of the chemicals in your bloodstream if you use more than one of these products on a regular basis. No one knows at what level the chemical is harmful to humans, but pregnant and lactating women should avoid the substance to be safe.

Companies that make more natural products such as Aveda, Ren and California Baby use no phthalates in any of their products — but these companies do not make nail polish, perhaps because of the difficulty in making it safe. Quite a few mainstream cosmetic companies have discontinued using phthalates in their products due to the EU ban. Among these are Urban Decay, L’Oreal and anything made by Proctor and Gamble.

Formaldehyde and allergens
Melissa, an aesthetician with Mountain View Day Spa in Greenwich, New York, says that formaldehyde and other allergens in nail polish are her only concerns because they could cause an allergic reaction in her clients. She uses Seche, a brand that does not disclose its ingredients to the public because it is “for professional use only.” According to Melissa, it is formaldehyde-free but it could contain a number of other questionable chemicals that have not been tested for safety.

Many people assume that cosmetics are safe because they are on the store shelves or in the salons, but most of them have not been screened by either the FDA or the CIR panel. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has an extensive online list of specific brands of products and which potentially harmful ingredients they contain. They also have an ingredient look-up function so one can check on the dangers of a specific ingredient.

The organic solvents toluene and xylene, which are very common nail polish ingredients, are petroleum-based products that may contain impurities that have been linked to cancer. Other acetate solvents are safer but may cause dizziness when inhaled or skin irritation on contact.

Polishing off a safe polish
Today, it is fairly simple to find nail polish in a drug store that does not contain phthalates or formaldehyde, but some brands still have these ingredients and others do not list their ingredients. Most solvent-based brands of polish that have discontinued the use of phthalates now contain phthalic anhydride, a toxic chemical hardener (see this web page) that has been linked to asthma. No mention of this new chemical appears on the EWG site. Some FD&C color lakes are allergens, such as Yellow 5, so these petroleum-based colors are also questionable when it comes to safety.

So basically, no nail polish is totally safe. The cosmetic industry almost always invents a new, untested chemical to replace one that has been found to be dangerous.

However, there are some slightly healthier alternatives out there. The best bet is Honeybee Gardens’ water-based nail enamel, available on their web site at HoneybeeGardens.com. This polish is completely free of phthalates, formaldehyde, solvents and FD&C colors. Testers of this product found that the peel-off variety went on very nicely, but they had to let it dry for a few hours or it would chip and peel off early. Honeybee’s stay-put variety works very well, especially with a clear coat underneath, but it too needs to dry for a couple of hours before it is totally set.

The stay-put type can be removed with rubbing alcohol or Honeybee’s Odorless Polish Remover, which is acetone-, fragrance- and color-free. This remover also works on regular polish, with some difficulty. Sante Kosmetics, a German brand available from Natural Solutions, makes a polish that is free of many of the usual chemicals such as toluene, formaldehyde and rosin, but it does contain solvents and phthalic anhydride. Testers of this product say it needs three thin coats in order to look good.

These safer alternatives are more time-consuming than chemical-laden brands, but the decreased risk of absorbing dangerous chemicals into your bloodstream through your skin is probably worth the extra effort. And these chemicals are definitely lurking in our cells, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The CDC tested 289 adults for phthalates — all of them tested positive, with women of childbearing age having the highest concentration (see this web page for more).

Even if you simply can’t live without traditional nail polish, you should avoid it completely while pregnant or nursing. Check polish labels for the worst offending chemicals. Two good contenders for relative safety include Almay Organic Fluoride Plus Grow Healthy Nail Color as well as Revlon Nail Enamel, which use acetate solvents and do not incorporate either phthalates nor phthalic anhydride.

© Tara Bzdok

Tara Bzdok has a bachelor’s in English and is going to school to become a registered dietitian. For quick and easy whole food solutions, go to http://www.healthyplanet.wholefoodfarmacy.com. Tara is also an Arbonne Independent Consultant, specializing in pure, cruelty-free, Swiss-formulated skincare and nutrition products.

10 Responses to “Safe, Natural Nail Polish: Is it Possible?”

1 eneruler says:

awsome thank you so much i lov nail polish but have breast lumps that could become cancer do i am off every thing and i miss my polish but if i can not find one that is NOT toxic then i will go with out thanks so much

2 jane mahlke says:

What can we, as consumers, do to require the FDA to start testing our cosmetics and putting labels on the products that contain carcinogens? It’s a crime what women are exposed to because we want to look nice and feminine.

3 haley says:

Okay, I am allergic to an ingredient in most nail polishes, so are there any that are purely hypo-allergenic?

4 Terry Akins says:

This is the best and most accurate article that I have read on this subject.

5 Alice and Jess says:

Hello to the world… We need help making nail polish because we need help making it for a science project. we need to know what chemicals we need to make it.

thank you. from alice and jess xx

6 becky says:

Im allergic to nail polish. Is there a hypo-allergenic nail polish?

7 Jennifer Cranos says:

Hi Tara, I just found out I’m 4 week’s pregnant. I get monthly pedicure’s . I have been using Sally Hansen nail polish for my hand’s and Opi for my toe’s. Is it safe to use Almay Organic or Revlon nail enamel? This is my first pregnancy.

8 JJ says:

I am also doing a project for a relative and need ingredients to make safe nail polish that doesnt take two hours to dry. How can I do that?

9 margaret mcgonigle says:

i have been using a nail polish that is water based and contains
arsonic 0.1 (cosmetic standards)
lead 1.5
mercury 0.01 and have been using it for some time now with no adverse reactions, there is no smell and my sister also used it while pregnant with no damage to her baby.I am a nail technician with asthma and used all brands of polish for several years that effected my asthma, so i searched for alternatives polish and this polish works for me and there is no need to use nail polish remover just soak off in warm water for 3 minutes and i love it. you apply 3 thin coats and drys in a few minutes

10 V. Livermore says:

Thanks so much for the information. So thorough. It was exactly what I was looking for.

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