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Nail polish: We've come a long way (in 9 years), baby.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's always nice when the list of products that don't contain highly toxic ingredients is longer than the list of those that do.

And that is exactly the case with nail polish, as a recent survey by the National Healthy Nail Salon Alliance shows. This 2-year-old organization (a network of 35 organizations, scientific researchers, advocates and government agencies), works to 'protect and improve the health and welfare of women working in the nation's nail salons.' And, by default, customers, too. What's so bad about nail polish, anyway? Most of us can imagine that a product that smells and works like nail polish has at least something toxic in it - or perhaps that simply reveals my 'there-must-be-something-toxic-in-that' bias.

And true enough, nail polish has - until very recently - contained three chemicals of concern: toluene (that smooth finish), formaldehyde (hardener), and dibutyl phthalate (flexibility & moisturizing sheen). If you're not already familiar with these chemicals, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics summarizes their toxicity well:

  • Toluene affects the central nervous system and can cause headaches, dizziness and fatigue. It is also a possible reproductive and developmental toxin.
  • Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen that can also irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and lead to skin irritation and an allergic rash called dermatitis.
  • Dibutyl pthalate is a developmental and reproductive toxin. Exposure can affect thyroid function, and in utero exposure is linked to reproductive problems in baby boys and decreased sperm count. You can read more from EWG here.

Good news after years of hard work: 'Toxic trio' is being phased out After nearly a decade of pressure, we're seeing results. Way back in 2000, EWG released a report (Beauty Secrets) about a low-profile CDC study that showed the prevalence of dibutyl phthalate (DBP) in people's bodies - especially women of child bearing age.

We took the study results a few steps further and found the chemical to be more toxic than the CDC had thought and identified some routes of exposure, including a long list of nail polishes. It was during this research that EWG uncovered the major concern of hidden phthalates in products and first laid out the major gaps in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

It also laid the groundwork for the Not Too Pretty project where a coalition of environmental and public health organizations, including EWG, worked together to track down those missing phthalates - leading to the launch of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in 2004.

Since then, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and its members pushed hard for companies to change their products. We began to see significant change in 2006 when some major cosmetics companies decided to go 'three free' - an important success given the FDA's total failure to regulate cosmetics ingredients.

Reduce your exposure and support healthy salons If you must paint those nails (we suggest skipping it if you can...), choose a polish that doesn't contain the toxic trio - aka "three free" and, if you're not a DIY type, bring it with you to the salon. There's no guarantee they'll offer one of the better brands or that you'll remember which ones are better brands (that would be me).

Plus, it's better for the salon employees and might even present an opportunity to do a little consciousness raising. Here are the 17 brands that recently confirmed they're three free (download a wallet guide here):

Acquarella, Butter London, Chanel, China Glaze, CHI, Colorpops, Lippman Collection, L'oreal USA, NailTini, OPI Products, Orly International, Rescue Beauty Lounge, Revlon, Seche, SpaRitual, Suncoat, and Zoya.

Also, ask the salon about ventilation - for your sake and for the employees. Using less-toxic polish but breathing in everyone else's - especially since inhalation is an exposure route - isn't going to minimize your exposure. Or visit a 'green' salon if there's one near you.

With all this good news on less toxic nail polish, am I going to let my 3-year-old daughter paint her nails? Nope. She can keep using her washable paints - they're perfect for the job.

[Thanks to Flickr CC & Okarol for the nail salon pic]

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