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Nail polish is a staple in the beauty industry, and we often don’t think twice about using it. We get our nails done at nail salons and paint our kid’s nails for fun without realizing the harmful toxins our bodies are absorbing.
The FDA classifies nail polish as a cosmetic, which means that few regulations surround the harmful ingredients present.
Cosmetics being sold regularly in consumer stores need to include a complete list of ingredients: These cosmetics do not need to be approved by the FDA before selling it.
Because there is low regulation around cosmetics, nail polish brands often fail to mention unsafe ingredients on their labels or they lie about the amounts without being caught.
While it might seem that nail polish is safe because there is a nail barrier between the polish and your body, that is not actually the case.
Studies show that nail polish can still seep through our nails and allow harmful chemicals to enter our bodies, not to mention the aerosolized VOCs which we can inhale.
Plus, some people (especially kids) bite or chew on our nails, or the polish can easily chip off and fall into our food, which leads to us ingesting these chemicals.
In traditional nail polish, there are many chemicals to avoid but the three main chemicals that are known to be harmful when used long-term are Formaldehyde, Toluene, and Phthalates.
Formaldehyde is a common ingredient in traditional nail polish and nail hardeners. Its primary purpose is to make the nail polish more durable by binding to the keratin in your nails. But this also ends up leaving your nail brittle and weak.
Formaldehyde is also a toxic chemical that can cause long-term health effects on your skin, eyes, respiratory and nervous systems.
When formaldehyde has contact with the skin, it can cause irritation and seep into the bloodstream. When inhaled, it can cause damage to the upper respiratory tract, and the American Cancer Institute has recognized it as a potential cause of cancer.
Toluene is a solvent present in polishes, hardeners, and nail polish removers. Toluene used to be present in nail products in margins of up to 50% until newer studies done by the FDA showed the severe effects of long-term exposure to this toxin.
Now, Toluene is disappearing from most nail polishes due to its severe long-term toxic effects, including female reproductive damage and pregnancy loss.
Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in nail polish to prevent the cracking and breaking of the polish.
Currently, there are not many studies on the effects of Phthalates on humans. Still, in recent animal studies, phthalates have been found to cause numerous fertility issues, like early onset of puberty, disrupting the endocrine system, and causing reproductive defects, and human studies are beginning to confirm these observed effects too.
Methacrylate Monomers, or MMAs, are widely used in nail primers in professional and consumer nail products.
MMA has been linked to causing abnormalities and lesions in organs. Other side effects are skin irritation, disturbances to the central nervous system, and fertility imbalances.
TPHP, aka TPP, an ingredient in furniture fire retardant, is used to make the polish more flexible and durable. It started appearing in nail polish in place of DBP/DPHP (these are phthalates, removed for its endocrine-disrupting capabilities) - an possibly replaced with someone equally harmful.
We don’t know a lot about TPHP yet, but from petri dish and animal studies, it is a suspected endocrine disruptor used widely on the nail polish market about 49% of nail polishes list TPHP on their ingredient list, but many do not even list it.
In vitro, TPHP was found to interact with a protein central to weight regulation and fat cells, potentially contributing to weight gain and insulin resistance.
It has also been found to have effects on sex hormones with potential downstream effects on fertility.
During a recent study at Duke U, researchers gathered a group of women and painted their nails with 8 different nail polishes, 6 with TPHP and 2 without TPHP. They tested samples of their urine right before the paint was applied and the next day to monitor toxin levels. They found that all the women had absorbed TPHP through the nails and had heightened levels in their urine samples, even though 2 of the polishes did not list TPHP as an ingredient.
Benzophenone-1, a controversial ingredient that has been found to be safe in some studies but associated with cancer and endocrine disruption in others. So I take a precautionary principle and try to avoid it if I can.
Many brands are now marketing themselves as ‘non-toxic nail polish’: 3-free, 5-free, or 7-free. This means that the nail polish is free from specific chemicals known to be harmful to health, like formaldehyde.
But even these nail polish brands which label themselves as non-toxic still contain chemicals which we don't know much about 'yet' and more monitoring/research is needed.
So, what’s the safest nail polish on the market?
There is no one brand that is 100% non-toxic in my opinion, the safety rating can vary within the brand too, depending on the color you choose. So all we can do is look for better brands, there is no 'perfect' brand.
It is important not to take non-toxic living to the extreme and consider how much pleasure something brings you AND your overall toxin burden, and the stage of your life e.g. if you are pregnancy, or trying to conceive it might be more important to be careful.
If you lead a pretty low toxic life, the occasional application of nail varnish is probably not a big deal. We know phthalates can be metabolized relatively quickly from our bodies provided our detox organs are working optimally. However, if our toxic burden is high and our detox organs are overwhelmed, that is when these harmful chemicals can start to accumulate and cause health issues over the long term.
Other than looking for a less toxic product, It is also essential to take breaks between painting your nails and keeping your nails and cuticles well moisturized.
Also, make sure the room in which you are painting is well ventilated (open the window), turn on the air filter, or better still, do it outside for best ventilation.
Also, don't live in fear - support your organs with me inside my signature course Detox Right.