Is Nail Varnish bad for your health? The Truth Part II

Part 1 can be found here

Nail varnish is made up of chemicals which serve a wide range of purposes e.g. adding colour, scent and stability.  It is these chemicals that experts are worried about in terms of long time exposure to them.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP) – Used in nail varnish to prevent chips.  Some evidence has found that pregnant mothers who have been exposed to DBP produced reproductive problems in their babies.

Toluene – Used in paints and dyes.  In nail varnish it provides colour.  This chemical has been shown to affect the Central Nervous System.  It can also induce headaches and dizziness and in rare cases is associated with kidney and liver damage.

Formaldehyde –  It is used in nail varnish as a preservative and hardener.  If exposed to the skin it can cause skin rashes and irritation.  Some studies have shown that long term use can lead to increased risk of nasal and lung cancer.

The E.U vs The U.S – The E.U is very strict when it comes to the chemical content of products.  The E.U has banned approximately 100 harmful chemicals which can be found in nail varnish.  This goes some way to explaining why there is a lot less availability of nail varnish brands in Europe.  The U.S in comparison has only banned 9 harmful chemicals found in nail varnish.  However, despite the fact that many U.S brands have no legal obligation to omit certain chemicals that the E.U has pointed out to be harmful, a lot of U.S brands feel pressure from consumers to get rid of them anyway.

3- free – An ever increasing popular option.  More and more nail varnish brands are removing the above-mentioned hazardous chemicals from nail varnishes.  If you buy a ‘3-free’ nail varnish, it means that they will not contain Toulene, Formaldehyde and Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP,) which have presented health problems ranging from headaches to infertility issues!

Long Term Use – A study was conducted by The Northern California Centre the Asian Health Services of Oakland (2009) on people working in nail salons.  The results showed that despite the fact that many of the technicians wore masks, they still suffered health problems.  However, the study also pointed out that people doing manicures at home may not be at the same risk as nail technicians working in a salon.

Children and Nail Varnish – ‘Adult’ nail varnish may contain toxic chemicals e.g. phtalates and formaldehyde which are toxic if ingested.  “It’s an issue if the child sucks on [their] fingers or eats the polish. Adults typically won’t do this,” says cosmetic chemist Joe Cincotta. (Nail biters take note!).  ” So instead, it might be better to use nail varnishes which are specifically made for and have been tested on children e.g. Piggy Paint and Little BU  which are non-toxic or even a water-based product e.g. Suncoat Girl

Stacy Malkan – Co-Founder of Campaign for Safer Cosmetics, says “Keep children and toddlers out of nail salons. Minimizing any exposure for kids is important, because that’s when they’re most vulnerable to the harmful effects of some of these chemicals.”

Nail Varnish Remover – The active ingredients in most nail varnish removers are Acetone and Methyl Acetate.  Whilst Acetone has been receiving some negative attention, the Director of Research and Development for OPI, Paul Bryson, says “There’s no scientific basis to say acetone is more dangerous than the alternative solvents.”   Nevertheless, nail varnish removers containing those ingredients are extremely flammable, so make sure that you keep it away from heat and in a well ventilated area so that the fumes don’t go to your head.  Piggy Paint also make an odourless Nail Varnish Remover.

Most nail varnish brands today do not contain DBP, Formaldehyde or Toulene anymore.  A list of 3-Free Nail Varnish brands can be found here and a list of 5-free Nail Varnish brands can be found here

Is 3-free really 3-free? Unfortunately, a study by California EPA found that 10 out of 12 brands claiming to be 3-free actually contained Toulene!   OPI was one of the few brands that came back as being clear of all three toxic chemicals.

4-free and even 5-free? If a product claims to be 4-free, it means that it does not contain the Big 3 AND it doesn’t contain Formaldehyde Resin.  Some argue that if Formaldehyde should be removed then so should Formaldehyde Resin as the EWG (Environmental Working Group) have classed it to be “expected to be harmful or toxic”.  5-free means that the product doesn’t contain the Big 3, Formaldehyde Resin or Camphor.  Camphor is used to add scent (nail varnish never smells particularly good so seems a bit of a pointless ingredient) and is known to be an irritant in large quantities.


Simple suggestions that may reduce health related risks of using nail varnish:

  • Try to use brands that are at least 3-free
  • Reduce your exposure to nail varnishes that are not 3-free (this includes old nail varnish which may have the old formulations)
  • Always use nail varnishes in a well ventilated space

For kids:

  • It would be advised to use a child-specific nail varnish, or one that is water-based, and with the highest ‘x’-free rating
  • Reduce their trips to a nail salon, or if you do take them, try and get a space by the door/window – ventilation is key!
  • There is nothing wrong with taking your own nail varnish to the salon to get the staff to use on your kids – at least you know what’s in it!

Initially this piece was created to feed my own interest into whether nail varnish was bad for your health.  Please do not be ‘scared’ by the results.  Nail varnish brands are working towards making nail varnish safer.  89% of known nail varnish brands are three and even four free.

If you feel like you want to chuck all your nail varnish away, that is your choice.  If you are going to carry on using nail varnish like you always did, then that’s fine too. However, I feel it’s important to share my findings so that people can be made aware of the potential risks and make an informed decision.

It’s also important to note that whilst we may wish to reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals found in nail varnish, there are chemicals just as bad (if not worse) that are contained in other cosmetics, food and everyday items.  So, even if you do cut out certain nail varnishes or nail varnish all-together, you may or may not be reducing your propensity to develop health problems as a result of exposure to chemicals.

It is completely up to you to determine your relationship with nail varnish, but at least now you know the facts.

You can take a look at some of the sources below for further information

Sources Health Hazards of Fingernail Polish

Livestrong The Effects of Nail Polish Ingredients

ImaginationInColour Big 3-Free

Post-Gazette.comCosmetics-makers-under-fire-on-nail-polish-chemicals-442530/ The Big 3

United States Department of Labour  Occupational Health and Safety – Formaldehyde

Nail Polish Safety

What Toxins Are on Your Nails

3 Scary Ingredients Hiding in your Nail Polish


8 responses to “Is Nail Varnish bad for your health? The Truth Part II

    • I’m so glad you thought so 🙂 I didn’t want to write it at first, I was so worried it’d be bad news & I’d have to give up my varnish! It’s kind of shocking how health took a backseat to vanity for a moment. But when I really looked at it, I realised just a couple of tweaks here n there and I can continue to enjoy my little obsession safer than before

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