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From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Are there any environmental or human health risks to using nail polish?
-- Deborah Lynn, Milford, CT
Conventional nail polishes dispensed at most drugstores and nail salons contain a veritable witch's brew of chemicals, including toluene, which has been linked to a wide range of health issues from simple headaches and eye, ear, nose and throat irritation to nervous system disorders and damage to the liver and kidneys.
Another common yet toxic ingredient in conventional nail polish is a chemical plasticizer known as dibutyl phthalate (DBP). According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit research and advocacy organization that campaigns to educate consumers about the health risks of cosmetics, studies have linked DBP to underdeveloped genitals and other reproductive system problems in newborn boys.
As such, DBP is banned from cosmetics in the European Union but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States has taken no such action, even though a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found DBP and other toxic phthalates in the bloodstreams of every person they tested. Further, five percent of women tested who were of childbearing age (ages 20-40) had up to 45 times more of the chemicals in their bodies than researchers had expected to find.
EWG attributes the prevalence of DBP in young women to widespread use of nail polish. "Women of childbearing age should avoid all exposure to DBP when they're considering becoming pregnant, when they're pregnant, or when they're nursing," says Jane Houlihan, EWG's Vice President for Research.
Luckily, safer nail polishes do exist and are readily available at natural health and beauty supply stores as well as from online outlets such as Natural Solutions and Infinite Health Resources. These products, from such makers as Honeybee Gardens, PeaceKeeper, Visage Naturel and Sante, rely on naturally occurring minerals and plant extracts to beautify nails without the need for toxic ingredients.
Major nail polish manufacturers are also now getting in on the act. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of organizations that includes EWG and the Breast Cancer Fund, Avon, Estee Lauder, Revlon and L'Oreal confirmed last year that they would begin removing DBP from products. And leading drugstore brand Sally Hansen has said it is reformulating all of its products to remove DBP and toluene as well as formaldehyde, which is also known to cause cancer and reproductive problems.
Exposure to toxic chemicals is not the only health concern associated with nail salons, where nail fungus and bacteria can lurk on the underside of any emery board. Women's health advocate Tracee Cornforth suggests checking out a salon for cleanliness before signing up for services. She also says to make sure attendants disinfect all tools and equipment between customers, and even recommends bringing in one's own manicure or pedicure kit so as to minimize the transmission of any unsightly or painful maladies.
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Updated: October 9, 2009