Walking by a nail salon in the mall, I noticed an employee wearing a face mask while she worked on a customer’s nails. The odor of the nail polish chemicals wafted out into the corridor as I passed by the store. I thought, “it is going to take a lot more than a paper mask to protect you from whatever they mix into those colorful bottles.” Why does nail polish smell so strongly and is there a healthier alternative?
What's in nail polish?
The main ingredient in nail polish is nitrocellulose which is a type of cotton that is also used in dynamite. Nitrocellulose acts as a film forming agent but needs other plasticizers or resins for it to adhere to the nail, repel water and remain flexible. Amyl and butyl sterate, castor oil, glycerol, fatty acids and acetic acids are examples of resins and plasticizers commonly used. Butyl sterate and other acetate compounds are used as solvents to allow the added nail color to stay blended and it is these solvents that give off the recognizable odor of nail polish.
Until recently, three unhealthy additives were in most nail polish products: Toluene, Dibutyl Phthalates (DBP) and Formaldehyde. Toluene has been linked to central nervous system irritation, DBP has been shown to affect the reproduction and development in infant boys and formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics worked for several years to get these three additives removed from OPI nail polish, a leading salon brand.
In 2007, OPI removed these three harmful chemicals though other manufacturers still add formaldehyde and toluene to their nail polish. Check the Skin Deep website at cosmeticsdatabase.com to see whether your brand still contains these chemicals.
Are water based products safer?
Yes, to an extent but it depends on frequency used and what chemicals are used to remove these polishes. There are no healthy nail polishes but there are less unhealthy ones. Three water based products that seem popular and claim to have no odor due to their water based formulation are: Honeybee, Acquarella and Sun Spots.