The Toxic Trio in “Nontoxic” Nail Polish

California researchers find more reasons that we can’t trust claims on cosmetics labels.

April 30, 2012

Healthy cosmetics can be hard to find. Claims like “natural” and even “organic” aren’t well regulated, and every few months, you hear of another report finding that lipstick is contaminated with lead and even baby shampoo contains cancer-causing dioxins.

Now, it seems, you have yet more reason not to trust cosmetics companies or their claims. A new report from California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control has found that nearly all the nail polishes the state agency tested that claimed to be free of a so-called “toxic trio” of chemicals linked to cancer, neurological damage, and reproductive harm in fact contained the chemicals, sometimes at higher levels than nail polishes that made no such claims.


Scientists researching nail-salon product safety bought 25 different bottles of nail polish used exclusively at salons (not brands that you’d find in your drugstore) and tested them for toluene, a solvent that helps nail polish go on smoothly but is neurotoxic; formaldehyde, a cancer-causing preservative; and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a chemical that keeps nail polish flexible but is known to interfere with reproductive hormones.

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Of the 25 products, 12 claimed to be free of toluene and one or both of the other two chemicals. But just two of the 12 products were actually free of toluene, and one product advertised as being free of all three chemicals contained higher levels of dibutyl phthalate than products making no ingredient claims at all. At the same time, three products that made no claims about chemical content were free of the toxic trio, and levels of toluene in all the no-claim products were, on average, significantly lower than the levels of toluene in products making safety claims.

“This is a perfect example of the failure of our regulatory system,” says Jamie Silberberger of the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance, a coalition of public-health advocates pushing for better product safety and improved health conditions in nail and hair salons. “These nail polishes continue to be used in salons, yet salon workers and consumers are so misinformed about them.”

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“It’s just like what happened with Brazilian Blowouts,” she adds, referring to the popular hair-salon treatment that was found to contain high levels of formaldehyde despite the fact that the product’s manufacturer advertised that it was formaldehyde free. The lack of regulation of beauty products and cosmetics in the United States leaves salon workers, and consumers, susceptible to products that have been labeled as safe when they’re instead very harmful, she says.

It’s not as though this was simply a case of contamination or a bad batch, she says. “The levels of toluene and dibutyl phthalate found were high enough to suggest that they were intentionally added.”

There were a few positives in the report, however. For one, OPI, the brand of nail polish most widely used in salons, was found to be free of all three toxic chemicals, and all the nail polishes tested were free of formaldehyde.

If you’re too in love with a weekly manicure and don’t want to give it up just yet, Siberberger says that it is possible to find a healthy salon. She suggests inquiring what a salon is doing to improve ventilation and if it uses toxic-trio-free polishes. Though this report shows that claims can be misleading, or downright false, salons do respond to consumer pressure.

You can also avoid salons entirely and give yourself a manicure at home with legitimately nontoxic nail polishes. Honeybee Gardens and Aquarella are two nail polish brands that are water-based, rather than solvent-based, and have earned low-hazard ratings in the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database from the Environmental Working Group.