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I’m pretty obsessed with thinking about what I bring into our home, and put on and into our bodies. My goal is always to use ingredients and products with the lowest toxicity and no harmful health effects. And, I look for products that are friendly to the environment and sustainable in the long run.
In my home, we focus a lot on transitioning household products to greener, healthier alternatives. But, I know that there are toxic culprits lingering under my nose when it comes to personal care. And one of those offenders for me is nail polish.
I’m not a frequent nail polish wearer, but I do own a kit of colours from red to black to gold. I use them from time to time to add to a look or feel more “put together.” However, I know that nail polish is toxic. Just one sniff when you open the bottle immediately tells you that it’s made of chemicals. My Naturopath advised me to avoid using toxic household chemicals including nail polish and nail polish removers throughout my pregnancy. That raised the alarm about the toxicity of nail polish in my mind. Especially since we leave it on our nails for extended periods of time. And we use our hands to do day-to-day activities like eating, bathing, etc.
So, what’s the deal with nail polish, and is it really that toxic? Are there any healthier and greener alternatives to nail polish and how can we safely dispose of it?
Topics in this post:
That tiny nail polish bottle stores a toxic cocktail
A wide range of chemicals are used to make nail polishes, removers and adhesives. People often talk about three key toxic chemical ingredients, the “Toxic Trio.” But nail polish is also made with many more that can contribute to short- and long-term negative health impacts. The health impacts of these chemicals are worse with prolonged exposure (as shown in nail salon workers). And it’s unclear how toxic they can be for regular nail polish wearers.
Toxic chemicals in nail polish & their impact on your health
Nail polish and varnish contains a wide range of chemicals, some of which are known to be linked to health and environmental issues such as reproductive disorders and birth defects, cancer, respiratory problems like asthma, and severe allergies.
The Toxic Trio & more chemicals
The ‘Toxic Trio’ of chemicals in nail polish most talked about includes formaldehyde, and its derivatives dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and toluene. Each of these chemicals is associated with a range of health impacts:
- Formaldehyde: Respiratory issues including difficulty breathing, coughing, asthma-like attacks and wheezing; Allergic reactions; Eye, skin and throat irritation; and Cancer.
- Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP): Nausea; Eye, skin, nose, mouth and throat irritation; Birth defects; and Cancer.
- Toluene: Dry or cracked skin; Headaches, dizziness and numbness; Eye, nose, throat and lung irritation; Liver and kidney damage; and Birth defects.
Other nail polish ingredients that can be toxic include formaldehyde resin and camphor, which can cause allergic reactions on contact with skin, and can be toxic if consumed by mouth.
Nail polish removers can also include:
- Ethyl Acetate: Eye, stomach, skin, nose, mouth and throat irritation; Fainting at high levels.
- Butyl Acetate: Headaches; and Eye, skin, nose, mouth and throat irritation.
Substitute chemicals in non-toxic polish
Sometimes equally hazardous substances are used to replace these harmful chemicals in nail polishes and removers. A joint study between Duke University and the Environmental Working Group found that Triphenyl phosphate, or TPHP, is being used as a replacement for DBP (which is banned from consumer products sold in the European Union).
TPHP is a suspected endocrine-disrupting chemical that has been found to be correlated with reproductive and development problems in people. The study showed that TPHP was absorbed into our bodies quickly after applying just one coat of nail varnish. Although the presence of TPHP in the blood seemed to be short-lived, some issues with toxic substances arise after prolonged exposure over time.
More study needs to be done on how repeated exposure to the toxic chemicals in nail polish affects us over time. And in the meantime I’m looking for alternatives before we find out.
Health and environmental impacts on salon workers
The toxic impacts of nail polish and related products can be even worse for people who work in salons. They are exposed to hazardous substances including polymers, monomers and solvents in nail polish, removers, adhesives, etc., often without appropriate protective equipment. The level of chemicals present in nail salons are comparable to those you would find in an auto garage or an oil refinery. But the nail care industry is not as tightly regulated in terms of protections for workers’ health.
Groups such as the Healthy Nail Salon Network and Nail Technicians Network of Toronto, California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, New York Healthy Nail Salon Coalition have formed to change this reality. They are working to learn about and improve the health, safety and rights of nail and beauty care workers to help prevent or reduce their exposure to chemicals and protect worker health.
It may be more expensive for salons to invest in protective gear such as enhanced and local extraction ventilation, nitrile gloves, or charcoal filtered dust masks. Considering the wide ranging health impacts, the cost is worth it to protect the health of salon customers and the people that work there.
Healthier and greener self care alternatives for your nails
Some people are drawn to the visual effect of having colourful nails for weeks at a time. But other people love the self care ritual of doing their nails at home or getting a salon manicure. Whatever your reason is, there are alternatives that can feed those desires without subjecting you to potential short- or long-term negative health impacts.
1. Focus your self care ritual on nourishing your nails and hands
Salon and spa visits are an opportunity for relaxation and social interaction with our friends and family. Nail care also gives us an opportunity to slow down, reflect and share some love with our hands.
There’s no need to abandon this practice altogether. Try focusing your self care rituals on nourishing your hands and nails as a thank you for the important role they play in our lives. Your self care practice can still include a hand soak and massage, cuticle softening and trimming, etc. But try replacing nail polish with extra steps like:
- Exfoliating your hands with a soft sugar-based scrub to help remove dry skin;
- Smoothing and shining your nails with a buffing block; and
- Massaging a nourishing oil like rose hips, olive or sweet almond oil into your cuticles and nails for added hydration.
2. Use alternative nail polishes with less chemical ingredients
Look for alternative nail varnish that use fewer chemicals if you still want to paint your nails. Nail varnishes labelled as “five-free” products identify that they do not include formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde resin and camphor. You can also find nail polishes that exclude more chemicals labelled as seven-, 10- or 13-free.
This is a good step. However, the health benefits of removing these chemicals are not well-documented in research, and some products substitute known hazards with lesser understood ones. To learn more about which nail polish brands are better or worse than others, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep searchable database. Skin Deep applies a 1 to 10 rating (best to worst) to each product, and explains ingredient concerns, animal testing policies and product label information.
3. Paint your nails sparingly to reduce chemical exposure
If you want to continue to use nail polish, be intentional about it. Try to cut down how often you do it and how long you leave it on for to reduce chemical exposure. In addition, use nail polish and removers in a well-ventilated space. And, consider wearing a charcoal filtered mask for an added benefit. If you want to go to a salon, look for opportunities to use your consumer power to improve the industry. Choose beauty care providers that are investing in creating a healthier and more sustainable workplace for people and the environment.
How to dispose of nail polish in a more sustainable way
Nail polish should be considered to be as dangerous and environmentally detrimental as other hazardous materials. This means, don’t throw those used bottles in the garbage, and definitely don’t flush remaining nail polish down the drain.
When disposing of nail polish, it’s helpful to think about it like paint or another chemical solvent. There are lots of online resources to help you figure out how and where to dispose of it properly, including:
- How2Recycle – a U.S. based recycling labelling system that tells you how to properly recycle products using municipal recycling systems;
- Earth911’s disposal portal for North America;
- Keep America Beautiful’s local recycling information portal;
- The United Kingdom’s hazardous waste disposal portal; and,
- Planet Ark’s chemical disposal portal for Australia.
Even if you’re not planning to get rid of your nail polish all together. Sometimes those older bottles just have to go!
Conclusion: Nail polish isn’t your only option for self care, and there are sustainable ways to dispose of the toxic stuff
Nail polish contains a variety of toxic ingredients linked to short- and long-term health and environmental issues. Still like the self care that comes along with painting your nails? Try shifting the focus of your at-home practices or salon and spa visits to nourishing your hands and nails. Use hand scrubs to deepen your hand care treatment, and consider replacing those coats of nail polish with nail buffing to add smoothness and shine and nourishing oils to add hydration.
You can also find alternative nail polishes, which contain fewer chemicals on the market. These are often referred to as “five-free” products. And if you want to continue to paint your nails, just try to do it less frequently. Consider wearing a charcoal filter mask to cut down your chemical exposure in a salon or at home. You can also use those nail salon visits as an opportunity to put your consumer power to work. Seek out businesses that are making an effort to create a healthier and more sustainable environment for you and their employees.
If you want to get rid of used or old nail polish and removers, be sure to do it properly. Nail polishes can be disposed of in the same way you would dispose of any other hazardous material like paint or solvents. Sites like Earth911 (North America), the UK Government’s hazardous waste disposal portal or Planet Ark’s disposal portal (Australia) can point you in the right direction for local disposal options near you.
Do you know of any interesting alternatives we didn’t mention in this post? Share it with us, we’re all ears!