What the Hell Is in My Nail Polish?

Are nail lacquers that are three-free and five-free really safe?

A Canadian ex-pat with a passion for pop culture, Carly is a multi-published author, public speaker and screenwriter.

Between gel polishes and the boom of nail art and cutesy colors branded by everyone from Minnie Mouse to Justin Bieber, the nail polish industry enjoyed $768 million in profits last year—but they’re doing so at a risk to our health. While many companies tout their wares as being three- and five-free (toulene, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin and camphor), removing the biggest chemical offenders from their formulations, they’re claiming these removals make for safe, toxin-free products. But that’s not the whole story.

“Conventional nail polish companies can’t just take an ingredient out and hope the formulation will work without it,” says Ginny Cardenas, the founder of Scotch Naturals, a company that creates safe, water-based nail lacquers. In other words, those hazardous chemicals were there for a reason—to create better or longer wear—and without them, companies are likely to go looking for substitutes. “Look at the ingredient list on the back of a bottle of nail polish—there’s 30 ingredients in there,” says Cardenas. “When you take something out, you have to put something else in its place. So okay, fine, there’s no dibutyl phthalate, but they don’t talk about what they put in its place—and often times, it’s something similar or worse.”

Generally, the trend has veered away from the most demonstrably dangerous chemicals, including the big three offenders: Toulene, which is used to help polish go on smoothly, is harmful to your nervous system; dibutyl phthalate, which keeps polish from chipping, has been linked to cancer and birth defects; and formaldehyde is a known carcinogen that offers a whole host of health problems. Camphor is poisonous in large doses and known to cause seizures.

But even without these ingredients, some concern remains about the other chemicals that make up your favorite bottle of Vamp, including ethyl acetate, butyl acetate, nitrocellulose, acetone and heavy metals.

That said, it’s not clear what health risks—if any—are associated with these ingredients.

“Some of these are known irritants and may cause problems, but there’s not enough data yet to pull an alarm cord,” notes David Pollock, a beauty industry veteran and chemist. “However, I would suggest avoiding these products and looking for more natural or less irritating ingredients, rather than waiting for data that reveals disturbing information. My feeling is that prolonged usage of such ingredients will likely eventually lead to problems.”

The author of Just Stop The Lies: The Secrets The Beauty Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know, Pollock was behind the formation of a number of the industry’s top-selling items for companies like Art of Shaving, Bliss Spa, Brookstone, Smashbox, and L’Oreal/SkinCeuticals before he had a change of heart. Now he aims to educate consumers and the beauty industry on how to make change…but change in the beauty industry is slow to come. Not only are many nail polish ingredients cheap, but, as Cardenas points out, making a toxin-free formula takes a lot of time, money and effort that most conventional companies are unwilling to shell out.

“Can you imagine how expensive it is to change your entire production line if you’re an OPI?” Cardenas asks. “Plus, they’re using old technology—the stuff they know and are comfortable with. They don’t want the new stuff to work because so far, it’s been okay that it hasn’t worked. And it’s hard to find suppliers working on green chemistry. So we’re limited on what we can do.”

This is something Melissa Hertzler, the founder and CEO of Honeybee Gardens, has discovered as her company has worked to create a water-based polish that acts like the nail polish we’re used to, but without the undesirable elements. As she puts it, “The technology is difficult. You’re trying to get something that’s water-based to act like a paint and form a hard film that’s going to last for a period of time on top of a porous surface like your nail. It’s hard to make it happen.”

So how, exactly, does it work? In essence, it kind of works the same way as conventional polish—solvents evaporate and the resin film attaches itself to the nail. The difference in a water-based solution is that 75 percent of the formulation is water. As the water evaporates, film-forming particles get closer and closer and create a breathable bond on top of the nail. Yes, there are resins involved—but natural resins come from different sources. For example, Honeybee’s resin is soy-based.

And while it takes a little longer to cure—the polish appears dry within minutes, but takes longer to hard-set—the result is a breathable bond on the nail. Honeybee is so committed to its non-toxic formulation that at trade shows, staff will actually swipe the nail polish wand over their tongue to show how non-toxic it is.

The number of water-based polish companies on the market is small, and there’s a reason for that: not only is the technology still very new, the payoff hasn’t quite met the effort it takes to make the product.

“It’s expensive,” Hertzler admits. “Nitrocellulose resin”—the resin most commonly used in nail polish—“is really cheap to buy, and ours is a patent that we developed. If we were a bigger company able to buy it in bulk, it might not be that bad…but for where we’re at now? On an annual basis, it’s pricey.” But that’s not stopping her from offering the polish to her customers. “Our nail polish has the lowest margin out of all our cosmetic products—it’s so low we’re not making anything on it. But I believe in offering a safer alternative, so I won’t discontinue it. “

That’s a sentiment that Cardenas echoes at Scotch. She admits that water-based polishes still have a ways to go, but they’re making progress—and that’s something she’s committed to. “I won’t compromise,” she says. “I want to make sure water-based is as natural as you’re going to get. It takes someone who really believes that they can make it happen. I’ve been at this for two years, and it took me finding a really young chemist who was willing to work with the new technology that’s out there. But I know it’s possible, because we now have cars that use water-based paint.”

Granted, we don’t want to wear our polish for ten years or more, so Cardenas continues to work with chemists to discover formulations that will adhere to the nail, but can also be safely removed with soy-based polish remover. So while Cardenas, Hertzler and their colleagues continue to work to bring a solid, water-based, non-toxic formulation to the marketplace, they have tips on how to avoid the marketing pitfall of “eco-friendly” polishes that actually aren’t.

First, use your nose—if your polish stinks, it probably has something in it that won’t agree with you. Second, do your research—inform yourself on the polishes that announce themselves to be toxin-free, and then read the ingredient listings. Third, while they’re not fool-proof, using online databases like the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database is a start. And fourth, if you absolutely must have this season’s glittery manicure, go as toxin-free as possible. As Pollock says, “At least they’re better than those that aren’t free of anything.” But he also warns, “I’ve seen organic makeup that contains known carcinogens. The best bet is not to just rely on the claim, but to look at the label—and keep a cheat sheet of ingredients to avoid. Learn what brands care about the consumer, and stay loyal. It will keep you safer. And eventually the other brands will catch on.”

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