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Detox Your Nails: Pick Nail Care Products Without Harmful Chemicals

Nail polish and nail treatments, like many other cosmetics, are made up of dozens of chemicals that work together to make a product that is colorful, shiny, hard, and chip-free. When we paint these chemicals onto our nails, they interact with our bodies. Most chemicals are harmless. Some aren’t. In fact, many brands of nail polish contain chemicals that are known to be harmful—toxic, actually.

But you don’t have to give up having gorgeous nails to avoid being exposed to these toxins. Instead, you can send your nails to rehab and say no, no, no to toxic chemicals. Pick products like those from Nail-Aid that are specially formulated to be effective without the nasty additives.

Shiny Nails Can Cause Headaches (Literally!)

For years, nail products, including nail strengtheners and other treatments, included chemicals that manufacturers knew were probably not great for us. But it was believed that because nail treatments didn’t expose users to large quantities of these chemicals, the effects would be minimal. Manufacturers also couldn’t find a way to avoid using those chemicals without negatively impacting the formula (or the price): the harmful chemicals were cheap, and they kept nail polish bright, glossy, and chip-free.

Until recently, many brands of nail polish contained three major chemicals we know to be harmful to humans (Nail-Aid has never used any of these toxic chemicals in its products). These are:

• Toluene
• Formaldehyde
• Dibutyl phthalate

If you’ve used nail polish or nailtreatments at all in the last ten years, you’ve definitely been exposed to these. That’s the bad news. The good news is that your body has probably already processed out most of the toxins, and it’s also much easier nowadays to find nail products that don’t contain these awful chemicals.

Why You Should Avoid Toxic Nail Product Chemicals

Scientists are great—they’ve given us life-saving medicine, the Internet, and air conditioning. They can also warn us about the dangers hidden in our make-up bags. While we don’t know everything about every chemical, studies have shown definite harmful effects from toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate, which means it’s worth your while to find out whether they’re in your favorite shade of polish or that miraculous peeling nail treatment you’re using.

Here are some of the effects we know about:


Toluene is a chemical that contributes to that distinctive “nail polish smell”. Toluene mostly affects the central nervous system if inhaled, causing headaches, forgetfulness, and confusion. If you’re exposed to it at low levels every day— while working in a nail salon, for example—toluene can also cause fatigue and nausea.

While the symptoms of toluene exposure end once you stop breathing the fumes, it stays in your body for a long time. Your body stores it in places where there is a lot of fatty tissue or a lot of blood: your brain, your liver, and in your fatty deposits. There’s also evidence from animals that exposure to toluene can cause birth defects, usually brain damage, in a developing fetus. Pregnant women especially should avoid using nail polish that contains toluene.

In short, avoiding toluene is good for your brain and your baby’s brain if you’re pregnant. And if everyone who uses nail treatments demands that toluene be stripped out of these products, this will benefit the nail salon professionals who won’t be exposed to it all day.


Formaldehyde is a chemical you might remember from high school biology—those frogs you had to dissect were floating in it. It’s probably also in your nail polish or your favorite drugstore strengthener, because it’s a preservative.

Formaldehyde has been tagged as a chemical that might cause cancer by the Environmental Protection Agency. Some people also experience irritation of the skin when exposed to products that contain it.

If you’re checking your makeup labels for the word “formaldehyde” you might not see it, but it could still be there. Some other chemicals can release formaldehyde when they break down. These include:

• Diasolidinyl urea
• DMDM hydantoin
• Imidazolidinyl
• Quaternium-15

You’re not a pickled frog: be smart and pick nail products and cosmetics without formaldehyde. Also, watch out for formaldehyde resins.

Dibutyl phthalate

Dibutyl phthalate is still being researched, but the evidence points to many disturbing effects. It’s a plasticizing chemical used in nail polishes, topcoats, and strengtheners to make the paint flexible and tough. It’s also been shown to cause birth defects in animals exposed to large quantities of DPT. The concern about dibutyl phthalate is so great that the European Union has completely banned it from cosmetics.

While you aren’t going to get a huge dose of dibutyl phthalate from having your tootsies painted pink, you’re also exposed to it from other sources, such as certain types of hard plastic packaging. So any time you can eliminate exposure from another source, you’re lowering the overall dose you get hit with. That’s a good thing.

Three Ways To Detox Your Talons

1) Toss Out: Several US manufacturers of nail polish and nail treatments started to eliminate dibutyl phthalate from their formulas in late 2006 (Nail-Aid, an industry pioneer devoted to its customers’ health, never used DBP, toluene, or formaldehyde in the first place). So if you’ve got a shoebox somewhere full of old nail polish or nail treatment bottles you still think you might use some day, say goodbye.

2) Read Up: Labelling on nail treatments and nail polish isn’t great. In California, manufacturers have to indicate the presence of DBP, but not necessarily anything else. Use your friendly neighborhood Google to look up the ingredients in products you’re interested in trying—most manufacturers will list them on their websites—and also find out about possible side effects. Try to get your information about health effects from sites that post actual scientific research, such as government agencies. It’s easier than ever to be an informed consumer, but it’s also easier than ever to find a big bad health scare story that doesn’t have a lot of facts.

3) Slap On: Only use nail care products that avoid toxic chemicals, even if the dosage isn’t enough to cause immediate harm. For many chemicals, we don’t yet know what the long-term health effects for humans will be—little doses over decades could spell trouble. And while you might not be hurt by the occasional mani/pedi, your nail technician has to work with the stuff for hours every day. So show your salon some love, and spread the word about toxin-free products like Nail-Aid.