Avoiding Harmful Chemicals in Nail Polishes

Despite some small talk, getting a manicure does not take much of an investment, at least not in terms of stress. You sit down, place your hand upright, and then wait for a nail technician to polish your nails until they glow.

There are not many luxuries in life that take this much of a little effort to secure.

However, getting your nails done comes with one risk that many people do not know about. The risk stems from the chemicals in the nail polishes used by some manicurists. Before you sit down for your next manicure, make sure you avoid the following 10 chemicals found in some nail polishes, gel polishes, and dip powders. Do your research ahead of time, and identify a brand such as SNS Nails that does not include these chemicals.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

To reduce the amount of nail chipping, some nail polish manufacturers add a chemical called dibutyl phthalate. DBP mimics the hormone estrogen, which can slow down the hormonal development of male fetuses. This can lead to organ damage that includes organs that are a part of the reproductive system. If you are checking for one chemical to avoid in nail polishes, it would be dibutyl phthalate.


Formaldehyde strengthens nail polishes to produce a longer-lasting appearance. The chemical also prevents the growth of harmful bacteria that can develop between the nail and the skin. Formaldehyde is found at low levels in the body that do not cause any healthcare risks. However, the amount of the chemical in some nail polishes can lead to the development of throat cancer. Prolonged exposure to the chemical can trigger asthma symptoms, especially among nail technicians that are exposed to the chemical throughout each workday.


One of the keys to getting a professional manicure is to have a nail polish applied that produces a smooth finish. Toluene, which has a sweet, powerful scent, is an ingredient listed in standard nail polish removers. However, the fumes given off by toluene are considered extremely toxic by neurologists that treat patients that have been exposed to the chemical for extended periods. The neurological damage that is the result of exposure to toluene includes hearing loss and diminished brain performance.

The European Union restricts toluene usages in most personal care products that include commercially available nail polishes.

Formaldehyde Resin

Not as much is known about formaldehyde resin that what is known about the first three chemicals on this list. As a result of the development of formaldehyde, the resin can cause serious skin irritations that can lead to infections. Allergic reactions and an abrupt loss of feeling in the nerves are also possible side effects of exposure to the resin produced by formaldehyde.


Used as a solvent to thin thicker nail polishes, xylene prevents nail polishes from lumping up to create an unbalanced appearance. The chemical also is associated with a nail polish’s distinct smell that when exposed to it long enough, can trigger allergic reactions of the eyes and skin. Extended exposure to the chemical can cause intense headaches and dizzy spells.


Also added to cold medicines, camphor is used to improve the appearance of some nail polishes. What the chemical does is enhance the shiny look of nail polish. Considered a safe chemical to use until recently, topically applied camphor can irritate the skin and cause allergic reactions. Inhaling the fumes given off by camphor has the potential to make someone nauseous, as well as trigger highly painful headaches.

The chemical is not allowed in the European personal care market, and the United States allows just an 11 percent concentration in personal care products such as nail polishes.

Triphenylphosphate (TPHP)

Nail polishes that dry quickly can create a tough surface that feels uncomfortable when you try to bend the tip of your fingers. Some nail polish companies add TPHP to nail polishes to enhance fingertip flexibility, while producing a longer-lasting glossy finish. However, even in small amounts, the chemical is considered dangerous to the reproductive system. 


Derived from the sticky substances produced by spruce and pine trees, colophonium extends the shelf life of some nail polishes. The longer-lasting nail polishes that contain colophonium also expose manicure customers to a powerful allergen that can cause severe dermatitis, as well as inhibit breathing when someone is just sitting still.


Although there are many types of silicone, only one type comes with a health hazard when added to nail polishes. Dimethicone is used in nail polishes to increase the speed of the drying process. The known allergen not only causes harm to manicure customers, but it also is a non-biodegradable substance that severely hurts the environment.


Chemicals that are added to nail polishes to enhance odor can cause serious health issues like cancer and acute allergens. Fragrances used for nail polishes to conceal an odor can also diminish the performance of the reproductive system.

The Bottom Line

Getting your nails done is considered one of life’s pleasant luxuries, that is until prolonged exposure to one or more chemicals leads to serious health consequences. Before you sit down for your next manicure, ask your nail technician if you should be concerned about being exposed to any of the 10 toxic chemicals to avoid in nail polishes.

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