Pretty Pure Polish

Pretty Pure Polish

Each month women (and some men and children) across the country paint and gloss their nails with chemical cocktails. Volatile solvents—and known neurotoxins—such as acetone and toluene serve as the base for nail polish formulations. Another neurotoxin and a carcinogen, formaldehyde, acts as a nail hardener and preservative. To prevent chipping, dibutyl phthalate (DBP)—a platicizer linked to birth defects—is added. The blend is topped off with coal tar-derived FD& C dyes to achieve the perfect color. But, health-savvy consumers, cancer prevention organizations, and governments at home and abroad are demanding less toxic options when treating nails to a splash of color or a coat of gloss.

Grassroots Efforts

“Miss Treatment USA” reads the sash of the beauty queen fixed atop a convertible car in an advertisement sponsored by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. The Campaign—a coalition of health organizations, spearheaded by the Breast Cancer Fund—has demanded the removal of DBP, formaldehyde, and toluene from nail products. International companies formulate products without the “toxic trio” for the European market, where ingredients known or suspected of causing cancer, mutations, or birth defects are banned. The Campaign urges these companies to follow the same standards for products sold in the U.S.


Major brands, such as L’Oréal USA (Maybelline), OPI Products (common in nail salons), Revlon, and Sally Hansen, agreed and reformulated to remove DBP, formaldehyde, and toluene. OPI still uses formaldehyde resin; but it carries fewer health concerns than formaldehyde. Avon and Orly removed DBP, but not toluene. Proctor & Gamble and Estee Lauder each introduced DBP-free lines: CoverGirl Continuous Color and Estee Lauder Pure Color.

State Regulations

Many product reformulations came just in time for California’s state law, which became effective in 2007 and requires companies to disclose product ingredients that cause cancer or birth defects (including DBP). The law also allows the State Department of Health Services to demand that manufacturers supply any health-related information about cosmetics ingredients and authorizes the state to regulate products to protect salon workers if they determine a safety risk.

Federal Legislation

These heightened safety standards at home and abroad have spurred U.S. lawmakers to take notice—and action. On June 24, 2011, Rep. Schakowsky of Illinois introduced H.R. 2359 The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011. The bill proposes nation-wide reforms for the industry, including a provision stating, “…any ingredient or cosmetic that induces cancer or birth defects or has reproductive or developmental toxicity when ingested by, inhaled by, or dermally applied to [applied to skin of] a human or an animal has failed to meet the safety standard…” and will be listed as a prohibited or restricted ingredient. As with California’s legislation, the Federal bill requires companies to report toxicological information. Visit for an outline of the bill.

Read Labels

Current regulation requires accurate listing of ingredients on retail products or packaging. Take advantage and always read labels, even when shopping for brands already declared as DBP-free. Manufacturers may still be in the reformulation stage or stores may not have the latest stock. But, bring your glasses and be prepared to read the fine print. Long ingredient lists struggle to fit on nail polish bottles. For easier reading, refer to the Skin Deep Database ( to check Environmental Working Group’s on-line resource for ingredients and hazard scores of over 60,000 personal care products.


Unlike retail products, salon inventory is not currently required to carry ingredient labels (although this would change with the passage of the Safe Cosmetics Act). Ask for the reformulated OPI products, Anise Cosmetics (formulated after a salon professional realized the harsh chemicals caused yellow, dry, and brittle nails), or Zoya products. A zip code search on Zoya’s website makes it easy to find a salon near you. Or, simply bring your own DBP-free products to your next appointment.

DBP-free from Birth

If you are stuck wondering which big-name company has gone DBP-free, try a younger generation of nail care. Besides Anise and Zoya, other new brands are popping up, started by moms and environmentalists turned entrepreneurs. To fill the void in the marketplace for more natural nail care, these brands not only meet, but exceed European and Californian standards. No Miss and PeaceKeepers nail products rely on isopropyl alcohol instead of more harmful solvents. Acquerella, Go Natural, Honeybee Gardens, Scotch Naturals, and Hopscotch Kids go a step further on the safety scale by offering innovative water-based products. Nail Aid products strengthen weak and brittle nails without the use of formaldehyde. Mineral pigments, such as iron oxide, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or mica replace petroleum-based FD&C dyes for many of these companies.  The water-based brands are also perfect for the little princess in your life. They may have left out the bad stuff, but they didn’t leave out the fun: bright colors, soft colors, sparkles, glitter, and glow in the dark colors galore.

Thanks to grass-roots efforts, Californian and European legislation, and visionary entrepreneurs, Americans now have nail care options that don’t include known neurotoxins, carcinogens, and chemicals that cause birth defects. With the passage of the Safe Cosmetics Act, all nail and cosmetic products will be able to make the same claim.

-Melissa Cooper Sargent

Fall 2010 (updated Jan 2012)

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