Is Nail Polish Bad for Your Nails?

The nails are made from epidermis cells that make up the skin, only more tightly packed. The cells in the nails are filled with keratin protein and are largely considered dead. Only three quarters of the nail bed where the nail attaches to the skin is exposed. It will take around six months for your nails to grow in, with men's nails growing faster than women's.

Nails require oxygen to remain healthy. The keratin in your nails also allows water to pass through to hydrate the area. If your nail begins to dry out, crack, break or peel this can be a sign that something is wrong with your nails or your overall health. Nail polishes are one of the most common offenders, causing nail discoloration and other symptoms of poor nail health. But are nail polishes really as dangerous as some studies suggest?

What's in Nail Polish?

Nail polish, also known as nail lacquer or nail enamel, has developed over the centuries as a way to help decorate the fingers and toes. Most product on the market today are considered nontoxic, but they still contain chemicals to help the product remain glossy, dry quickly or last on the fingernails that should be considered before using the product.

  • A film-forming agent- This is often nitrocellulose, an ingredient that is also frequently used in auto paint.
  • A solvent- This is the volatile part of the nail polish.
  • Dilutents- Most polishes use dilutents like ethyl acetate. These are used to stabilize the product and viscosity of the polish. This will also help to keep ingredients like nitrocellulose from separating from the mixture.
  • Resins and plasticizers- Ingredients like castor oil or dibutyl phyalate are added to polish to help give the product a bit of "give" when it dries, helping to prevent chipping.
  • Pigments- This is what gives nail polish its color. Some colors also contain reflective pigments.
  • Others- Other chemicals are added to nail polish to adjust the viscosity, make the product easier to apply or to quicken the drying time. Some also contain ultraviolet stabilizers to help prevent the color from being altered by UV exposure.

All products in nail polishes sold in the United States must be certified by the Food and Drug Administration. Nail polish colors can be derived from organic dyes or items such as chromium or iron oxides to make red or yellow shades and ultramarine to make blue. Some creamy nail polishes add titanium dioxide to increase the opacity of the color. Pearlized colors may include genuine pearl crystals or bismuth oxychloride if the manufacturer requires a less expensive option.

In more recent years, some manufacturers have begun producing water-based nail polishes. These still contain filming agents, pigment and solvents, but they are free of petrochemical solvents. These are designed for those that are sensitive to ingredients in most commercial polishes or those that would prefer an environmentally friendly nail polish alternative.

Is Nail Polish Bad for Your Nails?

Until recently, many commercial nail polish contained many dangerous ingredients such as formaldehyde, dibutyl phythalate and toluene, a combination commonly referred to as the "toxic trio." Formaldehyde is a carcinogen that is commonly known for preserving organic material so it will not decompose. Exposure to this chemical can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Dibutyl phthalate is a potential developmental and reproductive toxin that increases your risk of dizziness, headaches and fatigue. When wearing nail polishes that contain these ingredients, they will be absorbed through the nail bed, increasing your risk of side effects.

In 2006-2007 a variety of brands of nail polish such as Sally Hanse, OPI and Orly phased many of these dangerous chemicals out of their formulas. Dibutyl phytalate has been banned from use in beauty products since 2005, but the United States does not restrict the chemicals used in beauty products. While many companies have limited the use of toxic chemicals in their polishes, some products still contain concerning ingredients. It is important to check the labels of nail polishes you plan to use to ensure that the products you plan to use are safe.

In addition to the products listed above, check to see if your polishes contain other harmful products like isopropyl alcohol, fragrances, dyes or ethyl acetate. Harmful compounds like these also pose a threat to the environment. When nail polish is thrown away, the toxic chemicals in the mixture can leech into the soil or groundwater. Some city waste departments now ban nail polish as one of the hazardous materials that cannot be processed at their facilities. To avoid these types of issues, look for nail polishes that are approved by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. A list of non-toxic nail polishes is also available through the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database.