Well-manicured nails may look nice, but they often come with an environmental cost. Nail care products—a market worth $951.2 million in 2004—can contain substances like toluene, ethyl acetate, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and formaldehyde, which are harmful to the earth during production and disposal, and can harm human health when used. Fortunately, eco-friendly alternatives exist to help keep your nails healthy, strong, and glamorous, while minimizing harm to the planet and your health.
Chemicals in nail polishes and removers
Conventional nail polish and removers are made of about 70 percent chemical solvents, which, when applied, evaporate into the air and give off chemical fumes which the user then inhales. Many of these solvents, used to aid in the drying and hardening of nail polish, are petroleum-derived. Petroleum is a non-sustainable resource, the extraction and production of which has caused major environmental damage to soil, surface and ground waters, and local ecosystems, and contributes to global warming. Petroleum-based products support the hazards of the petroleum industry, which include about 2.6 million gallons of oil spilled every month during transportation and about 71 million pounds of toxins released into the air and water during refinement.
Eco-friendly nail polish and removers replace some or all of these chemical solvents with natural ingredients. Polishes and removers that are labeled as water-, plant-, or mineral-based contain fewer petrochemicals. Specific earth- and health-threatening chemicals to seek out on labels and avoid include:
- acetone: A solvent used in nail polish, nail polish removers, and astringents that can cause nausea, ear, nose, and throat irritation, and dermatitis. Can contaminate waterways in production and pollutes indoor air: its presence tends to be higher inside homes than outside due to the use of chemical products.
- benzophenone-1: Can lead to hormone disruption.
- benzoyl peroxide: Inhalation of this plastics additive can irritate mucous membranes and has been shown to promote cancer in animal studies.
- dibutyl phthalate (DBP): A specific phthalate, common in nail polish to prevent chipping and add shine, that studies have shown can interfere with normal hormone balance, can cause severe birth defects, and is a suspected carcinogen. Phthalates have also been shown to cause liver, kidney, lung, and reproductive system damage, and the production of phthalates pollutes the air, water, and soil.
- ethyl lactate or ethyl alcohol: Can lead to neurological damage and irritate the eyes and mucous membranes.
- formaldehyde: Used as a preservative in some nail polishes, formaldehyde is one of the world's most hazardous compounds to both ecosystems and health, according to the Environmental Defense Scorecard, and is a known carcinogen.
- toluene: Used to give nail polish its fluid quality and improve drying time, this solvent is absorbed easily by the body through the skin or inhalation, affecting the nervous system and causing depression, headaches, nausea, fatigue, and eye, nose, and throat irritation. Toluene has also been found to be toxic to the kidneys and liver and possibly a reproductive disruptor. Toluene is petroleum-based, so its production supports the pollution and greenhouse gases associated with petroleum production.
- xylene: Like toluene, this chemical solvent is petroleum-derived, toxic, and may be linked to cancer.
Labor concerns & nail salons
The US nail salon industry is a powerful one, bringing in $6.53 billion in 2003, a 67 percent increase from 1993. According to a 2007 study released by Women's Voices For the Earth, 95 percent of nail salon workers are female and of childbearing age; a large percentage of these women speak English as a second language—approximately 37 percent are Vietnamese-American—and may not be able to comprehend warnings and information regarding the potential toxicity of the products they work with on a daily basis. A 2004 survey conducted by New York City's Committee For Occupational Safety and Health and a Korean workers' advocacy group revealed that health issues among salon workers are rampant: 57 percent reported experiencing allergies, 37 percent complained of skin problems and eye irritation, and 18 percent suffered from asthma. It's believed that these complications arose from inadequate ventilation in salons.
As part of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s Nail Salon Project, a guide titled Protecting the Health of Nail Salon Workers has been published in Korean, Vietnamese, and English to help nail salon workers identify harmful chemicals in products and minimize their exposure to them. Additionally, in June 2007 the EPA granted two Seattle-area nonprofit groups, the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice and the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle, $100,000 to launch the "Toxic Beauty" project—an effort to green local nail salons that are primarily Vietnamese-owned and operated.
- Campaign For Safe Cosmetics
- The Nation - The High Price of Beauty
- Ideal Bite - Who says it's bad to bite?
- Health Care Without Harm - Phthalates/DEHP
- Studies Highlight Hazards of Manicurists’ Chemicals
- Women's Health & The Environment - Nail Salon Reports
- Co-op America - Real Money: The Ugly Side of Cosmetics
- Green Footsteps - Nail Polish Ingredients: Should We be Worried?
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer - Color them green: EPA grants will help nail salons
- Environmental Working Group - Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database: Check out where your favorite nail care product ranks on the hazard scale.