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Environment & Science

Getting your nails done could mean chemicals you don't expect


If you've set foot in one of Southern California's legion of nail salons, you know the smell. Chemicals in some nail polishes are toxic: dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde. In fact, this "toxic trio" has been on the radar of the the state Department of Toxic Substances Control for some years.

Tolulene makes fingernail polish dry flat, and keeps the color together in the bottle. Dibutyl pthalate is a plasticizer, which makes polish flexible and longer-lasting on the surface of the nail. And formaldehyde hardens it. Formaldehyde is a known cancer-causer. Exposure to all three chemicals has been connected to asthma, developmental problems, and other side effects and illnesses. A big consumer-based lobbying effort five years ago forced major players in the market, including OPI, to change their formulas to remove known toxic ingredients. It was still legal to include the chemicals in your nail polish recipe; companies just had to disclose to consumers that they were exposed to risks. 

But this week, a report from California's DTSC described an investigation that found the "toxic three" in some nail polish brands that did not disclose their contents fully. DTSC scientists pulled 12 nail polish types and tested them. They found tolulene in 10 of 12 of the samples, with four of those 10 being dangerously high levels of the chemical. 

Before you freak out, here are the brands: Sation 99 basecoat, Sation 53 red-pink nail color, Dare to Wear nail lacquer, Chelsea 650 Baby's Breath Nail Lacquer, New York Summer Nail Color, Paris Spicy 298 nail lacquer, Sunshine nail lacquer, Cacie Light Free Gel Basecoat, Cacie Sun Protection Topcoat, Golden Girl Topcoat, Nail Art Top-N-Seal and High Gloss Topcoat. Not that knowing the names will help you: they're not available in retail stores. Instead, as with many kinds of nail color, they're sold to salon owners and licensed nail technicians, who then use them on customers, who may or may not to look at the bottle (which, in the case of the brands listed above, aren't labeled). 

What that means in the case of these brands is that salon workers and their clients both risk exposure to three toxic chemicals they may not be aware of. The DTSC says this means 120,000 workers are vulnerable to chemicals in products like these. (One reason the state's news release is in Vietnamese as well as English.)

From the release

“Manufacturers that don’t get it right are putting those that do in a bad light,” said DTSC chief Debbie Raphael. “Manufacturers must ask themselves a basic question: ‘Is it necessary to make nail care products with these ingredients?’ Asking that question is a primary goal of DTSC’s Safer Consumer Products Regulations.”

California policymakers made a big push two years ago--working with manufacturers, regulators, and consumers' groups--to encourage consideration of chemical hazards before the products' pervasiveness made risks unmanageable. We reported on it; the project's pace slowed considerably in the face of of budget cuts, staff furloughs, and industry pressure. This report is part of one arm of the green chemistry push, so it's interesting to see it come through.