Nail Polish Toxicity – Real Concern or Just Hype?

Nail polish toxicity is the last thing most women worry about when they’re simply trying to make their nails look pretty. However, there is a silent yet powerful response from your body to the chemicals contained in them. Even the most well-known brands on the market may contain harmful ingredients. But are the levels of toxins enough to worry about?

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Triphenyl Phosphate

The far biggest offender in nail polishes today is a chemical called TPP/TPHP, or triphenyl phosphate. It is a plastic type substance used to increase flexibility but is also a flame retardant, neurotoxin, and potential endocrine disruptor.

These disruptors can affect reproductive health and lipid metabolism. According to EWG, levels in the body were said to be increased 7 fold after applying nail polish.

Furthermore, a couple of other studies have found connections between TPHP and decreased sperm count.

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Studies That Report Nail Polish Toxicity is Linked to TPP

Researchers at Duke University and the Environmental Working Group found evidence of TPP used in nail polishes, in more than two dozen women who participated in the study.

The study found that all women had a metabolite of TPHP in their bodies just 10 to 14 hours after applying nail polish. Levels of diphenyl phosphate, which forms after your body processes TPHP, increased nearly seven fold - which can lead to nail polish toxicity.

"It is very troubling that nail polish being marketed to women and teenage girls contains a suspected endocrine disruptor," said Johanna Congleton, Ph.D., MSPH, a senior scientist at EWG and co-author of the Duke-EWG study.

"It is even more troubling to learn that their bodies absorb this chemical relatively quickly after they apply a coat of polish."

*NOTE: One report that I read suggested that clear nail polish was more toxic than nail polishes that contain color but it didn’t explain why.

nail polish brands TPP image

More than 1500 nail products including polishes made by OPI, Wet N Wild, and Sally Hansen are listed in EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetic database. You can find EWG’s entire list here.

"It is possible that TPHP is now being used in nail polish as a replacement for phthalates, which also have endocrine-disrupting properties and are toxic to the reproductive system," said Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., associate professor at Duke University and principal investigator of the Duke-EWG study. "However, it’s not clear that TPHP is the better alternative. There is growing evidence suggesting that TPHP may affect hormone regulation, metabolism, reproduction and development."

This study is eyebrow-raising for various reasons but the most harmful effects may be in teens, tweens, and even adolescent girls who are exposed to a hormone disruptors at a time when they’re entering puberty – when hormones should be increasing and trying to stabilize.

The new study raises the prospect that millions of American teens, tweens and even younger girls are being exposed to a suspected hormone-disrupting chemical at a time when their bodies are rapidly developing and entering puberty. Nails Magazine, a nail salon industry trade publication, reported in August, 2014, that according to market surveys an overwhelming 97 percent of American girls ages 12 to 14 used nail products, including polish, and 14 percent of all teens and tweens used them daily.

Entrepreneur and eco-expert Erin Schrode has dedicated her time to educating teens about healthier, safer lifestyle choices since co-founding the non-profit, Turning Green, in 2005. She said:

"It is alarming to think my ruby red nail polish could come with a side of toxic ingredients that could ultimately end up in my body,” said Schrode. “We cannot control far too many exposures to harmful chemicals in our world today, but each of us can become informed and spread the word, support legislation that protects our health, and make smarter choices whenever possible. By voting with our dollars we can shift the marketplace towards safer, healthier products ...beginning with my own bottle of bright, glossy nail polish."

EPA nail polish ingredients image

Other Ingredients That Can Lead to Nail Polish Toxicity

  • Formaldehyde – known to cause asthma, a scratchy throat, and difficulty breathing. People who have chronic diseases should avoid it.

  • Toluene – Known to disturb the development in small children and a skin irritant.

  • Dibutyl Phthalate – Known neurotoxin and endocrine disruptor.

    According to Science Direct:

    "Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) is primarily used as either a flame retardant or plasticizer, and is listed as an ingredient in nail polishes. However, the concentration of TPHP in nail polish and the extent of human exposure following applications have not been previously studied. We measured TPHP in ten different nail polish samples purchased from department stores and pharmacies in 2013–2014. Concentrations up to 1.68% TPHP by weight were detected in eight samples, including two that did not list TPHP as an ingredient. Two cohorts (n = 26 participants) were recruited to assess fingernail painting as a pathway of TPHP exposure. Participants provided urine samples before and after applying one brand of polish containing 0.97% TPHP by weight. Diphenyl phosphate (DPHP), a TPHP metabolite, was then measured in urine samples (n = 411) and found to increase nearly seven-fold 10–14 h after fingernail painting (p < 0.001). To determine relative contributions of inhalation and dermal exposure, ten participants also painted their nails and painted synthetic nails adhered to gloves on two separate occasions, and collected urine for 24 h following applications. Urinary DPHP was significantly diminished when wearing gloves, suggesting that the primary exposure route is dermal. Our results indicate that nail polish may be a significant source of short-term TPHP exposure and a source of chronic exposure for frequent users or those occupationally exposed."

    To put this study into perspective, the nail polish toxicity seems to be from dermal exposure, not nail exposure. In other words, when you paint your nails, some polish is likely to get on the surrounding skin. If it’s not removed immediately, that’s when TPHP levels are elevated the most.

    However, it is also worth mentioning that fingernails and toenails are also porous. According to the Nail Doctors:

    "We use our nails all the time, but it's when they are in water, that they get the most damage. This is due to a specific type of cell in the nail bed of keratin which acts like an adhesive, holding the keratin closely together to give the nail it's hardness.

    If the nail receives repetitive soaking in water, or contact with soaps, dishwashing detergents, and household cleaners etc. it will damage these adhesive cells. So in order to combat this problem use a good moisturiser - one that absorbs really well such as, Nail Doctors - Cuticle Therapy Oil."

    They also mention that picking at the nails, biting the nails, or picking off nail polish can lead to nail bed problems. All of these examples above can lead to nail polish toxicity.

    ingredients in OPI nail base image

    Nail Polish Brands That Do NOT Contain Toxic Ingredients


    My advice? Reduce exposure to known neurotoxins and hormone disruptors as much as you can. Maybe nail polish toxicity isn’t something to be worried about. However, when you combine all the toxins most humans are exposed to today, it all adds up!
    I only paint my nails 2 or 3 times a year but that’s because I work with my hands all the time. Always heir on the side of caution so that nail polish toxicity is not something else you need to worry about!

    Always consult your physician before using natural remedies, especially for anyone with preexisting conditions or anyone currently taking prescription medications. Although many efforts are made to ensure that the advice given on this site is professionally sound, the advice is not intended to replace a mutual relationship with a medical provider.

    Related Pages on This Site

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    What Happens To The Body After Putting on (Nail Polish)?

    Nail polish as a source of exposure to triphenyl phosphate

    Is Triphenyl Phosphate TPHP in Nail Polish Dangerous?

    Duke-EWG Study Finds Toxic Nail Polish Chemical In Women’s Bodies

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