What’s in nail polish?

I’m not really known to wear nail polish, but as a result of a question from a reader, I thought I would take a look at what’s in nail polish, the environmental impact and green nail polish products.

Nail polish isn’t a modern invention by any means. According to Wikipedia, the Egyptians were using it thousands of years ago based on henna extracts and the Chinese used a mixture of natural components such as Arabic gum, gelatin and beeswax.

These days, nail polishes tend to be synthetic chemical cocktails, often petro-chemical based (crude oil). Components may include:

– butyl acetate or ethyl acetate
– tosylamide-formaldehyde resin
– dibutyl phthalate
– stearalkonium hectorite
– benozophenone-1
– toluene
– Nitrocellulose

Some nail polish manufacturers are said to use industrial grade nitrocellulose in order to save money. Industrial grade nitrocellulose is mostly used for furniture finishes and car paints.

Of particular concern are formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate – known as the “toxic trio” for their potential impact on human health.

Formaldehyde : carcinogen
Toluene : volatile organic compound
dibutyl phthalate : suspected “gender bender” and carcinogen

Past our own health, the wider environment needs to be considered – what poisons us is often toxic to a whole range of other creatures.

Given that over 50% of women (and some men) use nail polish, I hate to think how much of the stuff is produced a year – and it all has to end up somewhere once removed from finger nails. Additionally, there is the issue of all those little jars it comes in. It’s just another source of waste in an overburdened waste stream.

As for the packaging; specifically the bottle and even if it is glass, it shouldn’t be recycled as the contents that remain are considered hazardous waste – yet another item in our home toxic waste dumps. It’s my understanding that in the USA it’s recommended that nail polish bottles don’t go out into the trash but to a hazardous waste facility.

On a positive note, nail polish manufacturers have been responding to the “toxic trio” issue. A survey by the National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance last year found the majority of the manufacturers questioned no longer use these chemicals. You can download a Nail Polish Wallet Card here (PDF) that identifies the complying major brands. The use of dibutyl phthalate in cosmetics, including nail polishes, is also banned in the European Union.

However, as to what these companies replaced the toxic trio with, I’m not sure. The Alliance also points out that further work needs to be done to ensure that alternative chemicals are safe as do all other chemicals used.

As there are so many nail polish brands and some coming from countries with a less than stellar records when it comes to toxins, if you have a favorite nail polish, contact the company and ask them what’s in it. Ingredients may not only vary from brand to brand, but product line to product line. The individual components can then be quite easily researched.

You can also start looking into “green” nail polish.

Aside from being free of the toxic trio, these “earth friendly” products are water-based; often plant based and contain no petroleum products. They may use less packaging or bottles made from recycled glass.

However, they may not be totally free of toxins, so even makers of products touted as “environmentally friendly” nail polish should be questioned.

I think natural, manicured nails without the goop look nice too – and fingernails don’t have to be long do they? Health and environmental issues aside, think of the money you could save. Ditching the nail polish altogether for some people may be an easy greening step and as we’ve discovered, little green actions can make a difference!