Chemicals in Nail Polish Linked to Cancer, Autoimmunity, Obesity & Hormone Disruption

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It’s no secret that our skin is our largest absorptive organ, and that what we apply topically penetrates its way into our systemic circulation, pervading our every tissue. Our skin is, after all, even at its thickest points, only a few millimeters thick. Although most are aware of the detriment posed by the chemicals in personal care products applied to the skin, which shimmy their way into our cells, tissues, and organs, fingernail polish is oftentimes overlooked, as the nails are perceived as sturdier structures less permeable to chemical agents. However, the capillary bed in the cuticle surrounding the nail, in tandem with solvents that render the nails more absorbent, may lead to increased absorption of the cocktail of chemicals in nail polish which elicit tangible effects upon our physiology. There’s no shame in natural nails!


Formaldehyde is a preservative in nail polish that protects the product against microbial growth. It is classified as a known human carcinogen and also induces changes to the respiratory tract. In mouse models, it induces asthmatic symptoms and early Alzheimer‘s-like changes.



The sweet, pungent scent typical of many nail polishes is created by the chemical toluene, an industrial solvent that is also the most widely abused inhaled volatile drug in consumer products such as lacquers, glues, paint thinners, adhesives and industrial cleaning products. Toluene is one of the best-studied neurotoxins, which has a severe impact on myelin of the central nervous system. The myelin sheath is a layer of fatty tissue that engulfs nerve fibers like insulation on a wire, speeding the transmission of electrical signals, and it is degraded by exposure to toluene–a chemical which is known to cause white matter changes and brain atrophy in the central nervous system.

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

Many nail polishes in the early 2000s incorporated the plasticizer dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a compound which helps retain color, prevent chipping, and improve flexibility of the polish.
Evidence has mounted that DBP leads to obesity, interferes with thyroid health, and disrupts fetal development. DBP was found to be a reproductive and developmental toxicant which lead the European Union to ban its use in cosmetics in 2004.

Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP)
TPHP is used in nail polishes to impart durability and flexibility.
Research links TPHP to endocrine disruption, meaning that it alters the exquisitely fine-tuned balance of human hormones that is so important for health. Other effects of TPHP include alteration of thyroid hormone levels, reproductive toxicity including decreased semen quality, altered metabolic function and weight gain, developmental toxicity, and genotoxicity (damage to DNA).

“n-Free” Nail Polishes Still Contain Toxicants
The slew of brands that is capitalizing upon consumer demand for organic products has led to the unleashing of 3-, 5-, 7-, and 10- free nail polishes that impart a false sense of safety. These products are oftentimes active participants in the practice known as “greenwashing,” wherein certain buzz words and ambiguous advertising slogans such as “nontoxic” or “natural”–which carry no legal weight–are used to capture the organic market. However, these 3-5-7-10-free nail polishes oftentimes still contain toxicants such as benzophenone-1, an endocrine disruptor with links to cancer.
Article adapted from Green Med Info.

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