Tricks of the nail-care trade date back to the 1920s and 1930s, when cosmetics companies borrowed methods from car manufacturers that were developing new paint technology. As antiquated as that may seem, chemicals used then to create lasting results are still in play, and some watchdog groups worry about nail polish safety.

Most polishes contain dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a plasticizer that disrupts endocrine function and is linked to birth defects. And some also have toluene and formaldehyde, which are suspected carcinogens. The European Union banned the use of DBP and, in some instances, formaldehyde, in cosmetics in 2003, although the FDA says those chemicals pose no threat at such low levels. 

But the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics disagrees. This coalition aims to get cosmetics companies worldwide to phase out potentially harmful ingredients by having them sign their Compact for Safe Cosmetics. “We cross-reference 50 toxicological databases and conduct research to find safer alternatives, and so far, they’ve all proven successful,” says Mia Davis, the campaign’s national grassroots coordinator.

So far, 600 cosmetics companies have signed the compact. OPI, a major player in the nail-care industry, agreed last year to stop using DBP in its products (though it still uses formaldehyde in some). “They’re so recognizable, this will push the nail industry to make things safer,” says Erin Thompson of Women’s Voices for the Earth, another campaign member. 

Cosmetologist John Malson, founder of Syndicate Cosmetics, agrees. “It’s like when Aveda was founded in 1978, and people realized we didn’t need unpronounceable ingredients in shampoo. It takes someone to break out of the status quo.” Also a compact signer, Malson founded his company a decade ago, creating a line of single-use nail polish kits (packaged in recycleable materials) after learning about risks posed by brush-born bacteria in nail salons. 

Creating a safer polish does have its trade-offs, though, like texture inconsistencies. But Malson is confident people will grow to love eco-friendly polishes. “Once they understand how much better they are health-wise, more people will get on board.”

Polish it up

A manicure was once as simple as matching your nail color to your outfit. Now some natural beauty companies want you to select nail products that pair up with your ethical sensibilities too. 

  • For animal-rights activists: Max Green Alchemy, which displays a humane and cruelty-free claim on the bottle.
  • Tired of U.S. dependency on oil? Priti Organic Spa and PeaceKeeper Cause-metics both have petrochemical-free nail-care lines.
  • Vegans can feel good about cosmetic companies No Miss and Almost Natural: They carry polish and remover made from organic, plant-based ingredients. 
Story by Jessica Tzerman. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2007.

Copyright Environ Press October 2007

Is your nail polish safe?
The possible health risks of chemical-intensive nail polish.