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Nailed! Nail Polish Brands That Mess with Your Hormones (Plus the Polish I Personally Use)

Posted on 28 October 2015

New study proves that synthetic chemicals in nail polish may leach through your nails and into your bloodstream, leading to a sevenfold increase in toxic metabolites . . . . I’m doing something that feels totally weird. I’m at the nail salon in my Berkeley neighborhood, staring at a wall of pretty nail polish colors. It’s time for a pedicure.

NailPolish2“Pick Your Color!”

I’ve been ordered by the proprietress to go pick my color. There’s the usual debate in my head: I see the new season’s colors from nail polish brands such as Opi and Orly, and then I see the more boring colors from Zoya, my go-to nail polish brand. For some reason, I’m still swayed by the bigger marketing budgets and shiny new colors of the toxic brands. Until now.

Hello, Duke University!

In a collaborative study performed at Duke University with the Environmental Working Group, they found in 26 women that a common synthetic chemical in nail polish called triphenyl phosphate (TPHP, sometimes TPhP or TPP) is leaking into the bodies of women who wear nail polish.((http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26485058)) They think it leaches through the cuticles or possibly that another ingredient in the nail polish makes the nail itself more permeable.

What Is Triphenyl Phosphate or TPHP?

TPHP hardens plastic, so it makes the nail polish harden and resist chipping. It’s also used as a fire retardant in furniture. It is a known endocrine disruptor, which means that it may disturb the normal function of your hormones. Wondering if your favorite polish contains TPHP? Half of all of the 1,500 polishes in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database contain the chemical, including:
  • OPI
  • Essie
  • Wet N Wild
  • Orly
  • SpaRitual
  • Nuance by Salma Hayek
  • Maybelline
  • Beauty Without Cruelty
  • Sallie Hansen
  • Revlon
  • butter LONDON (they say they don’t, but EWG found it in their polish on retail shelves, so exercise caution)

What Does Triphenyl Phosphate or TPHP Do?

We don’t yet know the full extent of human risks from TPHP levels arising from nail polish. Most of the studies have been done on animals, but here are a few highlights. We also don’t know about toenails versus fingernails in terms of exposure, but the best approach is to apply the Precautionary Principle: guilty until proven innocent.

What They Found

  • Concentrations up to 2% TPHP by weight were detected in eight samples, including two that did not list TPHP as an ingredient. Now that’s scary.
  • Women in the study provided urine sample before and after application of one brand of polish containing a known amount of TPHP by weight (0.97%).
  • Diphenyl phosphate (DPHP), a metabolite of TPHP, was then measured in urine samples (n=411) and found to increase nearly seven-fold up to 14h after application of the nail polish to the fingernails (statistically very significant at the level of p<0.001).
  • For nail salon workers, gloves help, which means the primary exposure is dermal.
  • Overall, researchers state: “Nail polish may be a significant source of short-term TPHP exposure and a source of chronic exposure for frequent users or those occupationally exposed.” 

Why This Study Matters

Rather shockingly, the concentration of TPHP in nail polish and the full extent of exposure in humans following application to the nails had not been previously studied. How’s that, you may wonder? Unfortunately, it’s a case of the Chemical Industry (or “Big Chem”) getting away with something that I believe is unethical: It’s assumed that their synthetic chemicals are innocent until proven otherwise. It should be the other way around: guilty until proven innocent.
"It is very troubling that nail polish being marketed to women and teenage girls contains a suspected endocrine disruptor. It is even more troubling to learn that their bodies absorb this chemical relatively quickly after they apply a coat of polish." – Johanna Congleton, a co-author of the study

Avoid the Other Toxic Trio

TPHP isn’t the only potential toxin in nail polish. The other “toxic trio” in nail polish is formaldehyde, a known carcinogen also used to harden polish; plus the known teratogens toluene to evenly coat with color, and dibutyl phthalate, a plasticizer that adds flexibility and shine. Phthalates have recently been shown to affect a woman’s egg quality and risk of miscarriage, decreasing the odds among women undergoing IVF to have normal implantation and live birth.((http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26456810)) Women who love to paint their nails frequently and nail salon workers are definitely at greater risk given potential overexposure. It’s tough to know precisely where the line is between a “safe” amount of exposure and overexposure. One option, of course, is to use nontoxic nail polish that lacks the toxic trio, but clients often prefer the toxic variety because of performance. The Environmental Working Group maintains a ranked database at www.ewg.org/skindeep. Another option is to periodically detoxify, such as I describe in the Toxin Free reset of The Hormone Reset Diet, pages 194 to 215.

My Favorite Brands

Back to that wall of shiny nail polish at my local salon. It feels less weird to me now, after reading this study, to choose Zoya for my pedicure. Here are all of the brands that I use, which have a low score of 2 or less on the EWG’s Skin Deep rating system. Final word: Nearly all salons that I’ve been to will apply a layer of toxic base coat before your chosen, safer brand of nail polish, which defeats the purpose of finding and choosing a low toxicity polish. Do yourself a favor and pick up a base coat and a few shades of your favorite category 1 or 2 shade, and keep them in your car or purse. Your hormones and eggs will thank you!  

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