Your little ones may want to look pretty and play dress up. As a mother, you may even paint their nails from time to time. Personally, I’ve never been the type to wear nail polish regularly. Partly because I just don’t have the time to dedicate to maintaining my nails, but mostly because I’m repulsed by the smell of nail polish (and I grew up with stinky tofu!). If it smells toxic, it probably is toxic–turns out my nose was right.

Mom painting little girl's nails with nail polish

If you think nail polish is harmless because it just remains on the nails, you’d be wrong. A study performed by Duke University and the Environmental Working Group found that a suspected endocrine-disrupting chemical, triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), was absorbed into the body within 10 to 14 hours of painting the nails.

How did they measure this? The researchers collected urine samples from participants before and after applying nail polish. A metabolite of TPHP was detected at almost 7-fold in their urine after the application of nail polish, which should be concerning for frequent nail polish users. Another tidbit the investigators uncovered was that 2 out of the 8 nail polishes containing TPHP didn’t even list it as an ingredient.

What To Look Out For

The chemicals you want to beware of in nail polish are toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, TPHP, and xylene.

Here’s a closer look at these 7 chemicals.

1. Toluene is what gives nail polish a smooth finish. The fumes are highly toxic though, and chronic exposure can cause respiratory tract irritation, decreased brain function, toxicity to the immune system, and hearing loss. Children and pregnant women should not inhale these fumes. Due to the potential harm to fetuses, toluene lands itself on California’s Prop 65 list (list of chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm).

2. DBP, a type of phthalate, prevents nail polish from chipping. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they wreak havoc on our hormones. Because DBP can cause reproductive and developmental toxicity, it is also on the Prop 65 list.

3. Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, strengthens nail polishes and also serves as a preservative. Nail salon workers are particularly at risk of chronic health problems (i.e. asthma, allergic skin reactions, certain types of cancer) due to formaldehyde exposure. Japan and Sweden ban the use of formaldehyde, and it should be no surprise that it’s on California’s Prop 65 list. Notice a trend here?

Getting nails done at salon

4. Formaldehyde resin helps to form tough, shiny films. It can be slightly irritating to the eyes and cause allergic reactions.

5. Camphor is what gives nail polish its glossy shine. If you’ve ever had yellow staining on your nails though, it was likely due to camphor since it deprives them of nutrients. Inhaling the fumes could also cause dizziness, nausea, and headaches.

6. TPHP helps improve the flexibility of plastics. Early research is showing it could affect hormone regulation and contribute to weight gain and obesity. Animal studies link TPHP with reproductive and developmental issues, but conclusive studies are still needed.

7. Xylene can be an irritant to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.

What options are you left with if you just can’t part with nail polish?

Use brands that leave out these toxic chemicals. Do they exist? Yes! If a nail polish doesn’t contain the first 3 chemicals listed above, it’s called 3-free. Better yet, if it ditches the first 5, it’s aptly named 5-free. 7-free of course is the holy grail. However, keep in mind that even these nail polishes aren’t completely harmless; they’re just better than the alternative. For those that get their nails done at a salon, ask the workers whether they carry 3-free, 5-free, or 7-free polishes.

Best Nail Polish Brands I Like

3-free Nail Polishes

Butter london best nail polish3-free nars best nail polish3-free essie best nail polish







Why I Like Them: These are all 3-free nail polish brands. On top of that, Butter London is paraben free, and their Patent Shine 10x collection is exclusively 7-free. NARS specializes in color perfection, while Essie offers a whole multitude of colors.

5-free Nail Polishes

5-free rgb best nail polish5-free zoya nail polish5-free priti nyc best nail polish







Why I Like Them: RGB is cruelty free, vegan, fair trade, and gluten free. If you’re into electric shades, check them out. Zoya, a vegan nail polish, is a great line for the color-obsessed. Priti NYC is vegan as well and completely safe for children and moms-to-be.

7-free Nail Polishes

7-free ella + mila best nail polish7-free piggy paint best nail polish







Why I Like Them: ella + mila is cruelty free, vegan, and fair trade. Piggy Paint, a nontoxic, water-based, vegan nail polish appeals to children. It’s mommy-made and safe for pregnant mothers to use as well.

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