Have you ever walked into a nail salon and wondered "what is that smell?" or "should I really be breathing this?" Your instincts are right on. Nail polish, polish removers and artificial nail products contain a host of toxic chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer, reproductive harm, asthma and other negative health effects.
Nail salon workers are particularly at risk for exposure, as they work with these products all day every day, often in poorly ventilated spaces. We know little about the actual health impacts because so little research on nail salon workers or customers has been done, but the few preliminary studies that have been conducted indicate a cause for concern. Nail salon workers have reported decreased attention and processing skills and increases in asthma and other breathing problems.
The good news is that some nail polish manufacturers have reformulated their products to remove the "toxic trio" of ingredients: dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde and toluene.
Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) adds flexibility and a moisturizing sheen, and helps dissolve other cosmetic ingredients. DBP is a reproductive and developmental toxin that has been linked to feminizing effects in baby boys (click here for more information).
Toluene helps suspend the color and form a smooth finish across the nail. It also affects the central nervous system and can cause headaches, dizziness and fatigue. Toluene is a possible reproductive and developmental toxin.
Formaldehyde is found in some nail products such as nail hardener. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen. It is also an irritant to the eyes, nose and throat, and can lead to skin irritation and an allergic rash called dermatitis.
Nail care products like strengthener, remover and glue can also contain a host of other toxic chemicals, including organic solvents like xylene, methyl ethyl ketone and acetone, as well as acrylic polymers such as methyl methylacrylate and ethyl methylacrylate.
After discovering in 2006 that OPI nail polish — the leading salon brand — was one of the most toxic products ranked in EWG's Skin Deep database of cosmetics products, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics took on a multi-year campaign to pressure OPI Products Inc. to reformulate their products using safer chemicals. We fanned out to nail salons, demonstrated in shopping centers, wrote thousands of letters and launched an ad campaign to convince the public and OPI that safer products are good for customers and business.
Though OPI was already making safer products for the European market as required by EU law, the company was initially unwilling to reformulate globally. Then, in August 2006, OPI announced it would remove DBP from all of its products. A year later, OPI announced that it would also remove toluene from its products, and was marketing a formaldehyde-free nail hardener.
Today, OPI advertisements proudly proclaim its nail polishes to be free of DBP, toluene and formaldehyde.
OPI competitors Orly and Sally Hansen followed suit, writing to us that they would remove the toxic trio from their nail polishes, too.
If you have trouble breathing in a nail salon, imagine the impact on workers, who may spend dozens of hours each week breathing and touching chemicals in polishes, adhesives and treatment products. For more information and ways to get involved in worker issues, visit the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and the National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance.
What You Can Do
Look for less-toxic brands and formulations of nail polishes and treatments in Skin Deep, and practice BYOP — bring your own polish — on salon visits. Try buffing nails instead of lacquering, skip the mani and just get a pedi, limit polish use by children and pregnant women and always apply and remove polish in a well-ventilated area.