Is nail polish safe enough?

Little girl admiring her polished nails

Unaltered image. David D, Flickr. CC license.

When shopping for a safer nail polish, many moms and dads are relieved to see either the phrase “DBP-free” or “3-free” on the label. The first term indicates the product doesn’t contain di-butyl phthalate (DBP), a plasticizer and an endocrine disruptor. DBP is banned for use in Europe due to its link to cancer and birth defects. The second term indicates omission of DBP, as well as toluene (affects the brain and nervous system) and formaldehyde (a known carcinogen).

To achieve this, consumer advocates spoke out about the hazards of toxics in nail polish. They raised awareness among the public, lobbied legislators, and pressed companies for safer options. Over the past 10 years we’ve seen the hard work of these efforts pay off as more and more nail polish companies remove the three most dangerous chemicals from their formulas and reformulate.

DBP goes out, but DBP did improve the flexibility of nail polish. What is being used instead?

Flame retardant chemical found in nail polish

In October 2015, Duke University researchers and Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a study showing evidence of a spike in triphenyl phosphate (TPHP or TPP) in every woman who volunteered to paint her nails.

Within 14 hours of painting her nails, each of the 26 volunteers had an increase of a TPHP by-product (the metabolite, DPHP) in their urine. On average, that increase was seven times higher than the level before painting the nails. The chemical is thought to have entered the body through the skin, rather than via inhalation since volunteers who painted gloved hands did not have elevated levels of the metabolite.

Almost half of the 3,000 nail polishes in the EWG Skin Deep database (list TPHP as an ingredient. Additionally, the researchers tested a small sample of nail products for the chemical. One fourth of those testing positive for TPHP did not list it as an ingredient. Clear polishes tended to have more TPHP than ones with color.

The researchers quote recent health studies indicating that TPHP may affect the body’s metabolism and production of fat cells, possibly contributing to weight gain and obesity. TPHP is a flame retardant. And like DBP, TPHP is a plasticizer, making it useful to increase the flexibility of nail polish.

The researchers note that using nail polish may cause short-term exposure to TPHP. For frequent users of nail polish, however, TPHP may be a long-term hazard.

Regrettable substitutions

As consumers rail against the use of one harmful chemical after another, manufacturers often simply reach for the closest chemical on the proverbial shelf. Bisphenol-A (BPA) and PBDEs are two recent examples.

  • BPA: After much effort from concerned parents, BPA (an endocrine-disruptor) was removed from plastic baby bottles, only to be replaced with BPS, a chemical very similar in structure and toxicity to BPA.
  • PBDE: These flame retardants are no longer in new couches, chairs or children’s car seats. Instead we find toxic tris, which was banned in the 1970s for use in children’s pajamas.

And now — after years of thinking the battle had been won — researchers find TPHP, a plasticizer, flame retardant, and suspected endocrine disruptor in nail polish.

Those working for regulation reform have casually referred to this phenomenon as “toxics whack-a-mole”. As soon as one toxic chemical is knocked out, another one pops up in its place. Concerned parents and health advocates are back at square one getting the new chemical off of stores shelves, while children and other vulnerable populations continue to be exposed. The phenomenon is becoming so common-place that the term “regrettable substitutions” has now taken hold.

We need to fix federal toxics regulation in order to stop the continuous stream of regrettable substitutions. Legislation to reform the Toxics Substances Control Act, which regulates the chemical industry, is currently being debated in Congress. Public health advocates are urging law-makers for critical improvements to the bill before it gets to the president’s desk. Read: Congress’ Update of Toxic Chemical Controls Can Do More.

Be your own EPA

In the meantime, consumers are left relying on third-party research to find out what to put in the shopping cart. First of all, to minimize toxics exposures, put less in your cart (buy less stuff). Second, put in simpler products (with ingredients you can pronounce).

But these suggestions, especially in regard to nail polish, might not go ever well with American teen and tween girls, 97 percent of whom use nail polish (14 percent on a daily basis).

And it isn’t just teens and tweens; children as young as four and five also have fun decorating their nails. One mommy blogger even advocates applying polish to the toe nails of 3-month-old babies. The author claimed that since EWG ranks nail polish, you can find ones that are “pretty safe for your infant”. But, is that safe enough? Unfortunately, the nail polish battle is not over. It contains at least one more chemical of concern and when this one is removed, what will appear in it place?

– Melissa Cooper Sargent, Environmental Health Educator with LocalMotionGreen at Ecology Center. For more information, you can email her at or visit

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