Written by Anna Young, edited by Diana Ceballos
“We only buy ‘safe,’ ‘non-toxic’ nail polishes for our salon. They’re all ‘6-Free,’” announced Tiffany, a nail salon employee in the Boston area. But the nail polishes are not non-toxic: every day Tiffany faces complex, and often subtle, toxic exposures. Unfortunately, as a manicurist in the primarily young, female, and Vietnamese nail salon workforce, Tiffany is continuously at risk of reproductive harms, respiratory damage, sensitization, and other health effects.
Investigating Tiffany’s uncharted exposures required detective-esque sleuthing to uncover the full ingredient compositions of various nail polishes, the validity of “6-Free” and other product labels, and the strength of government cosmetics regulation. So I understand Tiffany’s misplaced confidence and trust. She does not know about the inadequate regulation of chemicals and labels, the toxicity concerns of currently used ingredients, or the continual substitution of toxic chemicals for other toxic chemicals. Product information is complex, confusing, and often unavoidably misleading.
In pursuit of learning the chemical compositions of commonly used nail polishes, I first analyzed the ingredients listed on Safety Data Sheets (SDS), which are product chemical hazard information sheets required in nail salons by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As I discovered, these SDSs typically only list a handful of ingredients. Brands can avoid disclosure of other potentially hazardous chemicals if the ingredients are trade secrets or below levels that trigger SDS disclosure requirements.
Dismayed at the unhelpfulness of SDSs, I turned to ingredient labels for nail polish products sold to consumers—ingredient lists which are not required by the Food and Drug Administration when the same products are professionally used in nail salons. These labels provide much longer lists of chemicals, many of which have toxicity concerns, compared to the corresponding SDS, demonstrating the inadequacy of SDS health information available for nail salon employees. However, despite their comprehensiveness, the consumer ingredient labels can result in confusion, too. For example, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 allows some ingredients to simply be listed as “fragrance” on the label. Diethyl phthalate, a widely concerning reproductive toxic chemical and plasticizer, is one such ingredient.
Nail salon employees and consumers (and even us researchers!) typically don’t understand all the chemicals listed on ingredient labels. Instead, many health-conscious nail polish purchasers look to marketing labels. “Safe,” “Natural,” and “Non-Toxic” labels exude safety reassurance and trustworthiness. Can we really trust these labels?
The answer is uncertain. Many nail polish companies have proactively eliminated concerning ingredients in the face of a seemingly never-ending string of chemicals found to be toxic. For example, in the past decade, most brands got rid of the widely publicized “Toxic Trio” chemicals (dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde) and now advertise “3-Free” nail polish. However, although “safer” nail polish brands may have removed a few toxic chemicals, they still contain other concerning ingredients. In addition, there is no reliable, comprehensive source on the myriad of evolving nail polish labels and their implications for health.
Recent progress from “3-Free” to “10-Free” labels seems both hair-raising (why were those toxic chemicals in the products in the first place?) and promising (toxic chemicals have been removed!). But the evolving labels may provide false reassurances in some instances. Instead of the “Toxic Trio” plasticizer dibutyl phthalate, many nail polishes now contain an alternative plasticizer, triphenyl phosphate, which also has reproductive toxicity concerns. Furthermore, these labels are not always accurate. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control found in 2012 that 5 of 7 “3-Free” nail polishes that they tested did actually contain one of the “Toxic Trio.” The market for “safe” nail polishes has become impossible to fully understand and navigate.
My research endeavors to fully unravel nail polish composition, to no avail, reinforces the inherent problem with product chemical safety: the burden of safe nail polishes should not be on the consumer, nail salon, or employee. A fellow nail salon employee of Tiffany’s should not have to confess, with instinctive suspicion, “I’d rather not know” when offered information about the reproductive toxic chemical exposures sampled in her nail salon. And her employer should not be faced with only one option to switch to safer (and naturally, more expensive) nail polish products: introducing higher service prices that most customers would not be willing to pay.
In a country with no required premarket approval of nail polish products (except for color additives) and fewer than a dozen banned or restricted chemicals in cosmetics, compared to the European Union’s more than 1600, we desperately need to update our 1938 federal regulation of chemicals in cosmetics. We must promote safe ingredients at the design stage of products to protect consumers and workers alike. Meanwhile, as consumers, we can encourage industry to investigate safer alternative ingredients, and we can strive to make the best choices with the little information we have.
* If you are a manufacturer or distributor of nail polish you can help us in a research study! We would welcome nail polish samples sent to us – please contact Anna at email@example.com. In a current pilot project funded by the Harvard Education and Research Center, we are chemically analyzing as many nail polish brands as possible for plasticizers and metal contaminants to inform safe ingredient alternatives.
Note: Name of nail salon employee has been changed to protect privacy.
California Department of Toxic Substances Control. 2012. Summary of data and findings from testing of a limited number of nail products.
EUR-Lex: Access to European Union Law. 2011. Council Directive of 27 July 1976 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to cosmetic products.
Meeker J, Cooper E, Stapleton H, Hauser R. 2013. Exploratory analysis of urinary metabolites of phosphorus-containing flame retardants in relation to markers of male reproductive health. Endocrine Disruptors 1: 1-5.
Meeker J, Stapleton H. 2010. House dust concentrations of organophosphate flame retardants in relation to hormone levels and semen quality parameters. Environmental Health Perspectives 118: 318-323.
Mendelsohn E, Hagopian A, Hoffman K, Butt C, Lorenzo A, Congleton J, Webster T, Stapleton H. 2016. Nail polish as a source of exposure to triphenyl phosphate. Environment International 86: 45–51.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2013. Cosmetics: laws and regulations; nail care products; fragrances in cosmetics; color additives and cosmetics.