Is Non Toxic Nail Polish A Lie? We Investigate

5 free, vegan friendly, gluten free, 9 free…call it what you will. But is non toxic nail polish a lie? New evidence suggests it is

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.

Or…can we?

Most of us never question whether 5-free nail polishes are non-toxic. That’s mainly since they’re definitely free of nasty ingredients like dibutyl phthalate (DnBP), toluene, or formaldehyde. And those ingredients are nasty indeed: the latter can cause birth defects, thyroid problems, allergic reactions and even cancer, for example. But the truth is that new research shows the chemicals 5-free do contain may not be any safer.

So, does that mean non toxic nail polish is a lie? Let’s look at the evidence.

Is non toxic nail polish a lie?

Is Non Toxic Nail Polish A Lie?

The study mentioned above was published in Environmental Science and Technology. It examines the common practice of nail polish manufacturers labeling their products as “5-free.” This label usually 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.

Examining the evidence

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.

Does non toxic nail polish even exist?

So, does healthy even exist? Young and her colleagues seem to think non toxic nail polish is a lie. They state that the new compounds in the “xx-free” brands 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. They are also 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. For example, highly toxic phthalates are plasticisers that allow for nail polish to peel off. These harm not only human health, but the environment in general, too. Taking out individual compounds, one at a time, isn’t enough.

Image below: @themainsociety

Bad for the planet, not just us

Is Non Toxic Nail Polish A Lie?

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 many, many nail workers who are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis. And personally, we’re concerned about the environmental impact of nail polish. For example, the unsold bottles. What happens to those billions of little bottles of poison?

This certainly an issue for the planet. 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. This eventually pollutes the earth and our waterways.

The worst offenders? Those super-sparkly varieties that use tiny particles of plastic glitter. These are virtually impossible to filter out of the water, meaning you end up drinking the stuff you polish your nails with.

What can you do?

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. And almost ALL polishes contain them. 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.

What are your thoughts? Is non toxic nail polish a lie? Let us know in the comments, below!

Main image: @buffchollie

Diane Small

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