Is Your Nail Polish Toxic?

Researchers Find Toxins in Nail Polish Labeled 'Toxin-Free'; Industry Says Report Lacks Perspective

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 11, 2012 -- If you're a mani-pedi fan, it's disturbing news.

Some nail polishes and other products used at salons and labeled toxin-free may have high levels of toxic chemicals, according to a new California report.

"The labeling does not always reflect the ingredients," says scientist Valetti Lang, acting manager of the Pollution Prevention Branch of the Department of Toxic Substances Control for the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Her team bought 25 nail products from distributors in May 2011. They sent the samples to an independent lab.

The lab tested the products for three chemicals -- dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde -- commonly called the ''toxic trio."

The chemicals have been of concern for their potential health risks, especially to nail salon workers.

In recent years, some nail product makers have removed these chemicals from their products, then labeled them as non-toxic.

"What we found out is that in many of the cases the label was inaccurate," Lang tells WebMD. "And that's really what our message is. We don't know if our samples are representative of the industry."

Some products that did not carry a toxic-free label actually had none of the chemicals in them, the researchers also found.

The report lacks perspective and balance, according to a statement issued by the Professional Beauty Association's Nail Manufacturers Council. "Most of the brands involved are not major brands and also not found in every salon," says spokesman Brad Masterson.

Some of the products tested are also for sale to consumers in beauty supply stores or via the Internet.

Toxins in Nail Polish: A Closer Look

The California scientists tested mostly nail color or lacquer. They also included some top coat, base coat, thinner, nail art, and a top coat-base coat combination.

They were looking for the chemical toluene, a toxin that may cause birth defects and developmental problems in children of pregnant women who have had extended exposure. They also looked for dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which has been linked to birth defects in studies involving lab animals, and formaldehyde, a carcinogen.

The labels on 12 products said they were free of one, two, or all of these chemicals. The other 13 products had no such claims.

Formaldehyde wasn't detectable in any of the products.

Only two products claiming to be free of all three actually were:

  • Color Madnic Luscious nail lacquer
  • Zoya professional nail lacquer

Among the products labeled as free of one, two, or three chemicals that fell short:

  • Sation 99 base coat
  • Sation 99 top coat
  • Dare to Wear nail lacquer
  • Chelsea 650 Baby's Breath nail lacquer (fast dry)
  • Poshe fast dry base coat
  • Orly Flagstone Rush nail lacquer
  • Nail art striper brush Magenta Glitter
  • New York Summer nail color
  • Paris Spicy 298 nail lacquer
  • Sation 53 Red Pink nail color

No Label, But Toxin-Free

Products without toxin-free labels often were still free of some or all of the chemicals, the researchers found. Of the 13 products that did not have a label, five did not have any of the three chemicals. One was a polish thinner, but the brand was not noted in the report.

The other four were:

  • OPI Birthday Babe nail lacquer
  • Cali nail polish thinner
  • Essie Starter Wife 596 nail lacquer
  • Out the Door topcoat

Toxins In Nail Polish: Story Behind the Research

The new report will provide information to the San Francisco Department of Environment's voluntary recognition program for nail salons that choose safer products, Lang says.

That program was created after the city and county of San Francisco passed an ordinance in late 2010.

California has more than 48,000 nail salons.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control has been collaborating with the Department of Environment.

To be recognized as a safer salon, nail salons must use products free of the toxic trio and other chemicals.

More Industry Input

The Nail Manufacturers Council doesn't approve of inaccurate labels, Masterson tells WebMD.

In a statement, the council said that ''none of the levels described in the DTSC report present a significant health or safety risk."

The levels of toluene and DBP found in the products are generally at levels considered safe by the FDA and the Expert Panel of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), according to the statement.

CIR was set up by industry with support from the FDA.

The trend, Masterson tells WebMD, is a move away from all three of the chemicals. "Voluntarily, most of the manufacturers have moved away from the three toxic ingredients they reference," he says.

Toxins in Nail Products: Other Voices

"The bottom-line finding is we can't trust the labels on some of these nail salon products that are claiming to be free of these toxic chemicals," says Rebecca Sutton, PhD, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. She reviewed the report.

"These chemicals have well-established health concerns," she says. "Obviously, there is greater danger for workers, who are exposed so much longer, day in and day out."

However, "this is not a minor concern for consumers," she says. Other products, such as cleaning supplies, also contain the chemicals, she says. Exposure can accumulate.

Her advice for consumers? "I might say go easy on the nail polish. Go to the salon less often." Pregnant women might consider skipping salon visits, she says.

Write the nail product manufacturers, says Julia Liou, MPH, co-founder of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and a public health administrator of Asian Health Services. Ask them to remove toxic chemicals, she says.


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SOURCES: Valetti Lang, acting manager, Pollution Prevention Branch, Department of Toxic Substances Control, California Environmental Protection Agency, Sacramento. Brad Masterson, spokesman, Professional Beauty Association's Nail Manufacturers Council, Scottsdale. Rebecca Sutton, PhD, senior scientist, Environmental Working Group, Oakland, Calif. Julia Liou, MPH, co-founder, California Healthy Nail Salon Cooperative and public health administrator, Asian Health Services, Oakland. California Environmental Protection Agency Department of Toxic Substances Control report, April 2012.

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