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The not-so-pretty side of nail polish 5/11

Women often suffer for beauty willingly, but dealing with the bad smell of nail polish may be more than just annoying, it may be toxic.

When women paint their nails they can inhale various chemicals like toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is used in nail polish as a preservative. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies formaldehyde as a carcinogen and the Environmental Protection Agency considers formaldehyde to be a "probable human carcinogen."

DBP is used to make materials more flexible. The EPA says DBP interferes with fetal development. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), a scientific panel convened by the cosmetics trade association, says DBP use is safe when it is no more than 15% of a product.

Toluene is often used in nail polish as a solvent. The EPA says it attacks the central nervous system and it also can cause developmental defects in fetuses. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says exposure to toluene can cause kidney problems in adults and even unconsciousness or death at high levels of exposure. While it is unclear exactly how much toluene is used in nail product formulations, the CIR says toluene is safe as long as the product contains less than 50% toluene.

The European Union banned DBP and restricted the use of formaldehyde to 5% and toluene to 25% in nail products. The U.S. federal Food and Drug Administration regulates nail products, saying they must be free from substances that are poisonous or harmful, so long as the item is used as directed. These three chemicals are allowed under FDA standards in the proper doses and usages, but the FDA doesn’t conduct pre-market testing or approval of cosmetics.

Some nail polish brands claim to have products free from DBP, formaldehyde and toluene, but these claims come with no independent verification and Consumer Reports hasn’t verified them either. Many other major brands have no such claims at all and it is unclear whether replacement ingredients are safe.

The Green Seal labeling organization is in the process of creating a certified label program for cosmetics, which will include nail polish. The organization solicited comments on a proposed revised standard from June 25, 2010 until August 20, 2010 and answered some of those comments in March 2011.

California’s Safe Cosmetics Act, as of 2007, requires hazard labeling of cosmetics that include chemicals, such as these three, that are known to cause cancer or developmental defects.

Avoiding nail polish is certainly one option and reducing the frequency of polishing will also help reduce exposure. If and when you do polish, make sure to do so in a well ventilated area, especially if you are pregnant.

Related links

GreenerChoices.org | Personal care products: green buying guide 12/10

GreenerChoices.org | Safer sun protection 7/10

When organic isn't 10/09

GreenerChoices.org | What's your beauty IQ? 3/09
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