How is my nail polish toxic and what should I use instead?

In this day and age, we are so conscious about what we eat, what we wear and what we put on our skin and hair. With increasing consumer awareness and easily available information, we all have access to information about ingredients, fabrics, products, and more. However, there is an aspect of personal care that does go unnoticed – nail paints!

You may not know this but the truth is that your nail paint could very much be bad for you and the environment. So, let us break it down and find out what non-toxic nail paints are.

How are nail paints made?

To understand the problem first, let us first look at how nail paints are made. So, nail paint is essentially a liquid that sets to a hard substance when exposed to air. This happens because the solvent evaporates.

Now, what exactly constitutes a nail paint, you may wonder. Well it essentially consists of a film-forming polymer (plastic) that is dissolved in a solvent (often an alcohol) with the most common ingredient being Nitrocellulose, that is dissolved in Butyl Acetate and Ethyl Acetate.

Every one of both, the “x free” and regular polishes that are available today start with these three same ingredients.

Other than these core ingredients,

  • Plasticisers: are added to make the film pliable and less brittle, such as the banned Di- Butyl phthalate, Camphor, and Isosorbide Dicaprylate.
  • Dyes, pigments, opalescents such as Chromium Oxide greens, Ferric Ferrocyanide, Titanium Dioxide, Darmine, Mica, Bismuth Oxychloride, Natural pearls, and Alumina, Fish scales.
  • Adhesive polymers to adhere the Nitrocellulose adheres to the nail’s surface: such as Tosylamide-Formaldehyde resin.
  • Thickening agents to keep the sparkling particles in suspension: commonly Stearalkonium Hectorite.
  • Ultraviolet stabilisers resist colour changes when the dry film is exposed to sunlight: commonly Benzophenone-1.
  • Fragrance to mask the smell and preservative.
This image shows how nail polish is made.

      What Makes Nail Paints Toxic?

      A 2015 study found that the chemicals in nail paints can absorb through our nails and into our bodies, and potentially negatively affect our health. The most common term you will see is three-free, meaning a polish is made without Formaldehyde, Toluene, and Di-butyl phthalate(DBP). These are the "big three" ingredients considered to be the most potentially disruptive and potentially carcinogenic.

      Traditional nail paints also contain a substance called Tri-Phenyl Phosphate or TPHP. TPHP might disrupt hormones in humans, and in animal studies has upset reproductive and development processes. TPHP is used in nail paints because it makes them more flexible and durable. It is also commonly used in plastics manufacturing and as a common fire retardant in furniture cushions and some foam children’s products.

      This image shows the "big three" harmful ingredients used when nail polish is made.

      What are non-toxic Nail Paints?

      Many non-toxic nail paint brands today are going far beyond the 3-free formulas, going on to eliminate other potentially harmful ingredients such as formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, and TPHP.

      When a formula does not contain those additives, you will see 5-, 7-, 9-, or 10-free written on the label. Today, even 12-free formulas are available. Let us take a look at what these twelve ingredients are and why you are probably better off not having this sort of toxicity in your nail paints!

      12-Free Formulas

      This image shows 12-free formulas.

       

      12-free nail paints are those that do not contain the following 12 potential toxins –

      1. Toluene: It is a liquid used as a solvent and has the smell of paint thinner. You can be exposed to toluene by breathing it in or getting it on your skin, which can in turn cause skin irritation. Inhaling high levels of toluene is said to be harmful to your nervous system and can cause light-headedness and nausea. Toluene is also a toxin that may cause birth defects and developmental problems in children of pregnant women who have had extended exposure.

      2. Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP): A commonly used plasticizer that has been linked to cancer. DBP has also been connected to birth defects in studies involving lab animals. In fact, this toxin was added to the California Proposition 65 list of suspected teratogens, which are agents that cause malformations of an embryo.

      3. Phthalates: Like Parabens, Phthalates are fairly popular. They are commonly used to make plastics more flexible and are sometimes also used as solvents.

      4. Formaldehyde: It is a potential carcinogen. Its vapours can also be irritating and may trigger asthma. Formaldehyde is commonly used to preserve and embalm dead animals and humans.

      5. Formaldehyde Resin: It is a derivative of Formaldehyde, mainly used in the production of coatings and adhesives. It is not as toxic as Formaldehyde but can be a potential allergen.

      6. Camphor: Camphor is a poison that may cause seizures and disorientation if used in large doses. This chemical acts as a cover on your nails, depriving them of nutrients and causing yellow staining on your nails.

      7. Triphenyl Phosphate (TPHP): TPHP is a chemical used in plastics to improve flexibility and as a flame retardant. A handful of animal studies and in vitro studies have suggested that it could be an endocrine disruptor which affects your hormones – in particular, it could potentially affect reproductive health and lipid metabolism.

      8. Xylene: Xylene is said to be irritating to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. It can cause systemic toxicity by ingestion or inhalation. The most common route of exposure is via inhalation. Symptoms of xylene poisoning include headache, dizziness, ataxia, drowsiness, excitement, tremor, and coma, ventricular arrythmias, acute pulmonary edema, respiratory depression, nausea, vomiting, and reversible hepatic impairment.

      9. Ethyl Tosylamide: It is a plasticizer that helps transform nail paint from liquid to dry in minutes; the ingredient has already been barred from personal care products in Europe due to its antibiotic properties and concern over antibiotic resistance.

      10. MEHQ/HQ: It may cause some adverse effects on human health. It is harmful if swallowed, causes skin irritation and eye irritation, long term use may damage your pigment cells.

      11. Methylisothiazolinone: It is a common preservative are found in many liquid personal care products, and has been linked to lung toxicity, allergic reactions and possible neurotoxicity.

      12. Parabens: Parabens are a group of ingredients which act as preservatives. They keep bacteria, mould and fungi from growing in your cosmetic products. Parabens have been associated with the increased risk of breast cancer and skin cancer.

      Which are some Non-Toxic Nail Paints Available in India?

      Reading all this, you may ask yourself – are there any non-toxic nail paints available in India? The answer to that is yes! Kanai Organics is an Indian brand that creates non-toxic nail paints. Their nails paints are formulated without Formaldehyde, Formaldehyde Resin, DBP, Xylene, TPHP, Toluene, Camphor, Ethyl Tosylamide, GMOs, Parabens, Phthalates, Sulfates.

      This is an image of 12 free formula of non toxin nail paint from the brand Kanai Organics.
      This is an image of 12 free formula of non toxin nail paint from the brand Kanai Organics.
      This is an image of 12 free formula of non toxin nail paint from the brand Kanai Organics.

      Summary

      With the Clean  Beauty movement increasing consumer awareness about what really goes into our skincare and haircare products, we also need to take a look at our nail paints and understand which potential toxins we may be exposing ourselves to! Understanding what 3-free, 5-free, 7-free, 9-free and 12-free formulas are goes a long to understanding why toxins such as Toluene, Formaldehyde, DBP, among others are best left alone.

      - Gauri Sindhu

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