The Toxic Trio in “Nontoxic” Nail Polish

California researchers find more reasons that we can’t trust claims on cosmetics labels.

By Emily Main


watch out for toxins in "natural" nail polishHealthy cosmetics can be hard to find. Claims like “natural” and even “organic” aren’t well regulated, and every few months, you hear of another report finding that lipstick is contaminated with lead and even baby shampoo contains cancer-causing dioxins.

Now, it seems, you have yet more reason not to trust cosmetics companies or their claims. A new report from California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control has found that nearly all the nail polishes the state agency tested that claimed to be free of a so-called “toxic trio” of chemicals linked to cancer, neurological damage, and reproductive harm in fact contained the chemicals, sometimes at higher levels than nail polishes that made no such claims.

Scientists researching nail-salon product safety bought 25 different bottles of nail polish used exclusively at salons (not brands that you’d find in your drugstore) and tested them for toluene, a solvent that helps nail polish go on smoothly but is neurotoxic; formaldehyde, a cancer-causing preservative; and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a chemical that keeps nail polish flexible but is known to interfere with reproductive hormones.

Of the 25 products, 12 claimed to be free of toluene and one or both of the other two chemicals. But just two of the 12 products were actually free of toluene, and one product advertised as being free of all three chemicals contained higher levels of dibutyl phthalate than products making no ingredient claims at all. At the same time, three products that made no claims about chemical content were free of the toxic trio, and levels of toluene in all the no-claim products were, on average, significantly lower than the levels of toluene in products making safety claims.