In the ancient world, both men and women polished their nails as a way of indicating status.1 Babylonian men wore black polish if they came from a high class (and you probably thought it was a Goth thing) and green if not; while women in Egypt painted their nails pastel shades unless they came from royalty, in which case red was the color of choice. Today, 3,000 years later, we’re still polishing nails and in fact, nail salons have become almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks. Almost every town has at least one or two, and the salons do a bang-up business, with the industry netting $41 billion in profits in the US annually.2
But while our ancient counterparts used ingredients for more natural nail polish like henna, the nail polishes in common use today incorporate a host of synthetic, dangerous components. Most modern nail polishes contain a trio of toxins — formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate — that have been linked to cancer and birth defects. The danger to patrons comes both from inhaling the noxious fumes from these “toxic three,” and also, from skin exposure. For those who work in the salons, the risks are greatly increased since they have exposure for hours at a time, day after day.
Health-conscious patrons, on the other hand, have been opting for “natural salons” that use supposedly non-toxic formulas and more natural nail polish. But a disturbing new study has found that most ostensibly non-toxic polishes actually are plenty toxic and still contain the three dangerous ingredients.3
The study, conducted by the California Department of Toxic Substance Control, evaluated 12 of the most widely used alternative polishes.4 Ten of the supposedly toxin-free products actually contained Toluene. Toluene is a solvent found in gasoline, paint thinners, explosives, and so on. Inhaling the stuff over the long-term or in high concentrations can lead to death, permanent brain damage, birth defects, and damage to the kidneys, brain, liver, heart, and nervous system.5 Even short exposure can cause confusion, light-headedness, dizziness, headache, fatigue, weakness, memory loss, nausea, appetite loss, coughing, wheezing, and hearing and color vision loss. In other words, if you feel woozy when you leave the salon, you probably aren’t imagining it.
The study also found that five of the natural products tested contained a significant amount of one of the other two chemicals, with some containing up to 17.7 percent toxic materials. Of those ingredients, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen; dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is an endocrine disrupter that can disturb the way the body responds to hormones.
If you make only rare trips to the salon, do you have anything to worry about? As it turns out: yes. First of all, inhaling the fumes, even occasionally, isn’t great. At the least, you should find a salon that has good ventilation. But also, the polish can leech into your skin, especially when you bathe.6 Apparently, polish is water soluble, meaning it degrades and small amounts leech out when exposed to water, and then it has increased opportunity to get absorbed into your skin.
Again, those at greatest risk are the workers in salons, who breathe in the fumes and touch the products day after day. Reports show that 95 percent of nail salon workers in California are women, and 80 percent of Vietnamese descent. Nationwide, 43 percent are Vietnamese, with other minority groups filling out the remainder. Many aren’t aware of just how toxic their working environment is.
The shocking thing here isn’t that nail polishes are toxic. One whiff of the stuff is enough to make any sensitive person suspicious. Rather, it’s that companies deliberately lie to present their products as safe when in fact, they are not. As Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, part of the National Health Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance, says, “This report shows that these companies are knowingly peddling tons of toxins without even an ounce of scruples. Not only are they including dangerous chemicals in their products, but they are outright lying about it. More disturbing is that the cosmetics industry continues to be almost completely unregulated — the FDA still does not have the power it needs to keep consumers and salon workers safe.”
It’s a good bet that the lying isn’t restricted to nail polish alone. In fact, several “natural” brands of hair color rank high on the toxicity scale in the Cosmetics Database7–a resource maintained by the Environmental Working Group that rates the toxicity levels of personal care products — even higher than some mainstream salon brands. In addition, some of the leading “natural” toothpaste brands contain sodium monophluorophosphate, a neurotoxin, and sodium fluoride, a carcinogen. Again, it pays to do your homework.
It should also be noted that even if a polish is free from the three most common toxins, it doesn’t guarantee that it contains no others. The Cosmetics Database shows, for instance, that that one brand of polish, OPI, which tests free of the toxic three, nevertheless contains triphenyl phosphate, another neurotoxin. Of the 740 polishes listed in the database, only seven qualify as low-hazard. It’s certainly worth your time to poke around the information listed so that you can learn the truth about what you slather on yourself.
By the way, there are other dangers in salons beyond the toxins. If salons don’t maintain superb sanitation and sterilize all equipment after each use, you could be exposed to fungi, infections, and even diseases like hepatitis. And so, the upshot is, if you absolutely must have your nails done, find a salon with good ventilation, high standards of cleanliness, an emphasis on natural nail care (but check their brands first), and bring your own polish just to be sure that you aren’t having a carcinogenic, neurotoxic, hormone disruptive treatment to make yourself look pretty. And, as always, a regular full-body detox can’t hurt.
1 “Nail Polish History Dates Back to 3200 BC.” 1 January 1995. Nails Magazine. 11 April 2012. <http://www.nailsmag.com/article/91274/nail-polish-history-dates-back-to-3200-b-c>
2 “Hair & Nail Salons in the US: Market Research Report.” IbisWorld. 11 April 2012. <http://www.ibisworld.com/industry/default.aspx?indid=1718>
3 Castillo, Michelle. “Concerned advocates, companies respond to Calif. “toxic nail” report.” 11 April 2012. Health Pop. 11 April 2012. <http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-57412614-10391704/concerned-advocates-companies-respond-to-calif–toxic-nail-polish-report/>
4 Rabiner, Stephanie. “Nail Salons are Still Toxic, Dangerous.” 11 April 2012. Reuters. 11 April 2012. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/12/tagblogsfindlawcom2012-injured-idUS423223454220120412>
5 “Toluene.” Tox Town. 11 April 2012. < http://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/text_version/chemicals.php?id=30>
6 “Why I Stopped Getting Manicures.” Cheeseslave.11 April 2012.< http://www.cheeseslave.com/why-i-stopped-getting-manicures/>