Q: I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with a vicious form of cancer and will be starting chemo immediately. As she begins to lose weight and hair, I'd like to make sure she has good body products. I know there are a number of organic products out now, but I'm quite confused about nail polish and remover, both of which are high priorities for her. Are there good enough nontoxic nail products that I can give her to prevent her going into the manicure place, which is normally a weekly stop for her?


A: I’m sorry to hear your bad news, and I’m afraid that I don’t have any good news to share about nail polish and removers. Nail polishes and removers are loaded with highly toxic chemicals, including dibutyl phthalate (DBP), formaldehyde, ethyl- amyl- and butyl- acetates, and toluene. These chemicals can contaminate drinking water, and the smell in any nail salon attests to the fact that they can evaporate, poisoning the air we breathe. We also absorb toxins dermally, through our skin, cuticles and nails (nails are porous and can allow toxins to enter your bloodstream).

Some of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, and others lead to birth defects. DBP, for example, is connected to cancer, absent testes and reduced sperm count in boys whose mothers were exposed during or before pregnancy.

In 2004, the company OPI was forced to remove DBP from its polishes sold in Europe when the European Union banned DBP and other personal-care product ingredients known or strongly suspected to cause cancer, mutations or birth defects.

Although nail polishes must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, laws do not require cosmetics companies to prove that products are safe before putting them on the market. Lauren Sucher, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Working Group, warns that products are usually tested for acute and immediate reactions, not for long-term health concerns such as cancer or reproductive toxicity.

Toluene has been linked to health issues including headaches; eye, ear, nose and throat irritation; nervous system disorder; and damage to the liver and kidneys. Acetates used in nail products are known neurotoxins. Formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen. A number of the coloring agents are linked to cancer, especially the coal-tar dyes found in FD&C Blue 1 and FD&C Green 3.

In the coming months, the Obama administration will be promoting a new chemical law in Congress, but in the meantime, the Environmental Protection Agency will begin to analyze and regulate six high-profile chemicals that have raised concerns. This will include phthalates, which are used in vinyl and cosmetics.

There’s really no getting around the fact that your friend should give up the nail polish habit. Maybe she’ll find that a more natural look is actually quite elegant. All she needs is a file to maintain shape, soap and a nail brush for cleaning, moisturizer for cuticles, and a bit of oil on the nails. With all the toxic fumes in the air, she should stay out of nail parlors, but if she can’t resist, opting for a buff manicure is a better than polish and the ensuing removers.

Another better-than-nothing option is to find some of the few nail polishes and removers that are less toxic. To find out more about specific ingredients and products, check out Skin Deep, a safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products from the researchers at the Environmental Working Group.

The burden of diligence shouldn’t be on us as consumers, but until testing and approval safety laws are enacted to protect citizens and prevent health risks, we will have to urge manufacturers to reformulate their products with safer alternatives. The EWG has a list of phone numbers and e-mail addresses for some major personal care products manufacturers.

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Are there nontoxic nail products?
Some chemicals in nail polish and polish remover are known to cause cancer, and others lead to birth defects.