By Diane Small
Who doesn’t love having sparkly, polished nails? A pedicure looks great with a sandal or with bare feet on the beach, and a beautiful manicure never fails to give our confidence level a bit of a boost. And now that there’s a plethora of 5 (or more) – free nail varnish brands on the market, we can rest assured that our mani/pedi addiction is healthy.
Whilst many of us never question whether 5-free nail polishes are non-toxic, since they’re definitely free of nasty ingredients like dibutyl phthalate (DnBP), toluene, or formaldehyde (which can cause birth defects, thyroid problems, allergic reactions and even cancer), the truth is that new research shows the chemicals 5-free do contain may not be any safer.
The science behind the polish
The study, which was recently published in Environmental Science and Technology, examines the common practice of nail polish manufacturers labeling their products as “5-free,” which means that in addition to the aforementioned “toxic trio” above, their formulas are also free of the potential allergens camphor and formaldehyde resin.
Ok, I know what you may be thinking: 5-free is nothing, right? There are now polishes that claim to be all the way up to 13-free. So, that sounds pretty darned free of harmful chemicals, right? Maybe not so much.
The study’s first author, Anna Young, a doctoral student at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, says that even if consumers think a higher number of “xx-free” co-relates to a healthier nail product, that may not be the case. To come to this conclusion, Young and her colleagues studied 55 nail varnishes across 44 popular brands sold in beauty stores and nail salons. They compared the labels and ingredient lists for these products, and checked to see whether each one was indeed free of the harmful ingredients as it claimed to be. This held true for the 3-to-5-free products, but as the numbers rose, the meaning of what that number meant became inconsistent.
For example, of the products tested that were labelled “10-free,”there were six different variations as to what those 10 toxic compounds were. And because there’s no standard regulations for labelling products as being free of certain chemicals, there’s no way to know if a certain ingredient will or won’t be included in a product’s list of exclusions. To make things even more convoluted, some manufacturers’ exclusion lists included things like fat, wheat, gluten, and animal-based ingredients, which don’t actually pose a health threat to most nail polish users. In short, just because certain stuff is not included in a product doesn’t mean it’s necessarily any safer or better for you.
But the bigger issue is this: just because brands remove harmful ingredients like DnBP, that doesn’t mean they’re not replaced with similar chemicals that haven’t been targeted as being harmful – yet. Young and her colleagues state that these new compounds may not be any better for consumers than their predecessors.
“It’s a practice known as regrettable substitution,” says Young. “When one toxic ingredient is simply replaced with another one, it’s kind of like playing a game of chemical whack-a-mole.”
The good news is that by now, most brands have phased out DnBP and are reducing the amount of a similar plasticiser (and suspected endocrine disruptor) called triphenyl phosphate (TPHP). But the authors of the new study argue that brands should be doing more to exclude entire classes of ingredients—like phthalates or organophosphates as a whole—rather than individual compounds, one at a time.
So, what can you do?
If you polish your nails once in awhile, there’s no need to panic – occasional use of nail varnishes isn’t likely to cause serious health concerns. Young and her team are much more concerned about the public health issue that affects the man, many nail workers who are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis.
That being said, there is certainly an issue for the planet, too – when you remove nail varnish, the chemicals are wiped off with nail polish remover onto cotton pads, which are then tossed into the bin or toilet, eventually polluting the earth and our waterways. The worst offenders are the super-sparkly varieties that use tiny particles of plastic glitter that are virtually impossible to filter out of the water, meaning you end up drinking the stuff you polish your nails with.
You can definitely make smarter decisions by reading the full ingredient labels, rather than buying into a marketing gimmick on the front of the package – anything with phthalates is going to be harmful, for example. You should also know that just because one toxic ingredient has been removed, it doesn’t mean there still aren’t risks associated with others.
In the end, it may be wiser to invest in a set of press-on nails and non-toxic nail glue – at least you can use that set of nails again and again, and no microparticles of plastic will enter the water system. But of course, the best bet for beautiful nails is to go au naturale – maybe just file, buff and polish up with some coconut oil. Simple, but still pretty – and healthy as heck.
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