• Daurice Cummings-Bealer

Is Your Nail Polish Linked to Autoimmunity, Cancer, Hormone Disruption & More?

Updated: Dec 23, 2019

Having worked in the entertainment industry I am quite familiar with all things beautiful. We would dye hair, get manicures and pedicures, have hair removed, all for the sake of being chosen to work.

It wasn’t until I was in school for clinical medical assisting that we were told NOT to work in manicured nails. This was for the safety of patients as well as our selves. Then when I began in Holistic Medicine, I learned even more reasons NOT to do any of these things.

Since I see so many young girls getting manicures, as young as 6 years old, I decided to bring awareness to the dangers of this popular indulgence. I am now seeking more natural ways to feel beautiful. Are there better polishes out there? We will discuss this further on.

Let me start by saying that our skin is our largest organ and it’s important to be careful what we apply to it. When we topically apply lotions, medicine, soaps, perfume, etc. the chemicals in these products penetrate our systemic circulation and enter our tissues. Once in our system, they can cause damage to our bodies.

I can understand how we overlook nail polish believing that our nail is stronger than our skin. However, the capillary bed in the cuticle surrounding the nail comes in contact with chemicals, not to mention the solvents used that help the nails become more absorbent increase the effects on our system. Let’s not forget about the chemicals that we are breathing in.

Let’s look at the dangers of just four of the chemicals found in nail polish.

1. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is used as a preservative that protects against microbial growth in nail polish. It’s colorless, water-soluble, and highly reactive due to electrophilic properties. In laymen terms, due to its vacant electron-devoid orbitals, it steals electrons from biological molecules altering the stability and properties of molecules in our bodies.

We know it is used in several industries and products that we use every day but it is a known carcinogen to humans and induces changes to our respiratory tract. Studies have shown that it induces asthmatic symptoms, and early Alzheimer’s-like changes. According to the Turkish Journal of Urology, Formaldehyde comprises the intracellular balance and tends to combine with proteins, nucleic acids, and unsaturated fatty acids. This causes reactions such as allergic, inflammatory, cytotoxic, necrosis, mutagenic, and carcinogenic. These effects develop denaturation in proteins. It also increases free oxygen radicals in our tissues and accelerates the processes of cell death.

2. Toluene

Toluene is the strong odor most polishes carry. It’s an industrial solvent and the most abused inhaled drug. You find it in glue, paint thinner, lacquers, and industrial cleaners. The effects of these vapors have been studied by patients who have inhaled spray paint and similar substances. It is associated with acute hepatorenal injury, rhabdomyolysis, and profound metabolic acidemia. In pregnant women, it can impair the normal development of the fetus.

Toluene is one of the best-studied neurotoxins which impacts the myelin of the central nervous system. The myelin sheath is a layer of fatty tissue that floods the nerve fibers similar to insulation on a wire. In doing so, it speeds up the transmission of electrical signals and is degraded by the exposure to toluene. Toluene is known to cause white matter changes and brain atrophy in the central nervous system. Abuse of toluene can produce neurological disorders similar to dementia. However, with low-level chronic exposures such as nail polish, it can trigger more subtle, subclinical changes that over time pose a larger and cumulative detriment to your health.

3. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

The compound was incorporated into the polish to help retain its color, prevent chipping, and improve the flexibility of the polish. This mimics estrogen which induces testicular toxicity and impairs spermatogenesis (the process of new sperm). It also interferes with the thyroid leading to obesity. It disrupts fetal development. In fact, due to it being a reproductive and developmental toxicant, the European Union banned its use in cosmetics in 2004.

This caused companies to launch “3-Free” polishes (to devoid the toxic trio formaldehyde, toluene, and DBP). Although many “n-free” labels began emerging there is no standardization or formal regulations mandating which chemicals be omitted.

4. Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP)

Since phasing out DBP it is being replaced with TPHP. This chemical is used as a plasticizer or a flame retardant. It is added to furniture and baby products under the pretense of stopping the spread of fire. It’s used in nail polish for durability and flexibility.

Research links TPHP to endocrine disruption which alters our fine-tuned balance of human hormones necessary for good health. It also alters thyroid hormone levels, reproductive toxicity including decreased semen. It alters the metabolic function and weight gain, developmental toxicity, and damages our DNA. There are animal studies that show TPHP may accelerate the onset of Type 2 Diabetes.

Exposure to this chemical is double in women but affects men as well. In one study subjects provided urine samples before and after applying nail polish. Researchers found that DPHP, a by-product of TPHP metabolism, increased by almost seven-fold 10-14 hours after applying the nail polish.

In 2015, the Environment International found TPHP concentrations of up to 1.68 the percent by weight in 8 to 10 nail polishes tested. What’s more disturbing is that 2 of the 8 polishes failed to disclose it on their product labels.

The Environmental Working Group Skin Deep is a cosmetic database that discloses info on products. I use their site regularly. You can go to www.ewg.org Of the thousands of products they cataloged, more than half disclose the use of TPHP. This includes popular nail polish brands such as Sally Hansen, Revlon, Maybelline, and OPI. The industry estimates that 97% of U.S. girls ages 12-14 use nail products. This makes them vulnerable during puberty for hormonal disruptions.


Autoimmune conditions plague nearly 50 million Americans and are one of the top 10 leading causes of death in females. In the journal Rheumatology, researchers noticed strong associations between working in a setting that included nail polish applications (such as a salon) and later developing systemic lupus erythematosus or (SLE) which is an autoimmune disorder affecting multiple organs systems. People with lupus were 10.2 more likely to have worked in such jobs.

There have also been studies that connect associations with frequent nail polish use to the risk of primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC), which is an autoimmune disease of the liver. In the journal of Autoimmune Diseases, they discuss how halogenated compounds in nail polish have an affinity for mitochondrial proteins. In laymen terms, the chemicals in nail polish bind to proteins within organelles of our own cells. By doing so they are more likely to be recognized by the immune system as foreign and provoke an immune reaction. The immune system then responds by producing the anti-mitochondrial antibodies which are typical of PBC. Phthalates contained in nail polish, as well as other cosmetics, induce auto-reactivity—an attack against itself.

"n-Free" Nail Polishes Are Not Toxic Free

Due to the demand for organic products, several brands are capitalizing on the term 3-,5-,7-, and 10- free nail polish. While this may seem great news it also brings on a false sense of security. Companies have been known to practice “greenwashing” where they use certain buzz words and obscure advertising slogans to such as “non-toxic” or “natural” they are not being honest but also carry no legal weight. These nail polishes that are labeled 3-,5-,7-, 10- free often still contain toxins such as benzophenone-1, which is an endocrine disruptor with links to cancer. It is also linked to neuronal delay, congenital malformations, male infertility, and problems with behavioral development. There is also evidence of benzophenone-1 accumulating in the placenta, according to the Journal of Preventative Medicine & Hygiene. These ingredients have good lipophilic properties and after only a few hours from being applied, it is possible to detect them in biological fluids such as maternal milk.

Better Options?

While the best alternative may be to stay away from nail polish there are better options out there. While the industry has come a long way, it still has a way to go. If you aren’t into the DIY nail polish you can check with www.ewg.org before you buy polish. This is where you can find the risk of products you use. Here is a sample of what you will learn. After doing some research I found that Zoya Nail Polish is considered one of the best options and Green Nail Salons use it. Here is what www.ewg.org says about it:


As you can see, its last update was 2013 so we searched for the current ingredient list on the label. We found the ingredients at www.skinsafe products.com which is another site to help you make better decisions. Here is what they told us about the current (2019) ingredient list:


Acetyl Tributyl Citrate

Acrylates Copolymer

Butyl Acetate

Ethyl Acetate

Isopropyl Alcohol


Stearalkonium Hectorite

Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer

Skinsafe rated it as 82% allergen free and to be TEEN Safe. Here is their finding: SkinSAFE has reviewed the ingredients of Zoya Nail Polish, Dot, 0.5 oz and found it to be 82% Top Allergen Free and free of Gluten, Coconut, Nickel, Lanolin, Paraben, MCI/MI, Topical Antibiotic, Soy, and Propylene Glycol. Product is Teen Safe.

It also lists:

Common Preservative Free

Fragrance Free

Lip Safe

However, we know that it still has ingredients in it that are NOT safe for the lungs or reproductive organs yet it says Teen Safe. So, while it is great that we have other sites to give us information, it is our responsibility to do the research and make our own decisions. I personally would not call Zoya Teen Safe or allow children and teens to wear it.

How Can We Move Forward?

First, it is our duty to call our legislators and demand that Congress improve our laws that govern the regulation of cosmetics. The current statute on the books has not been updated since 1938 and only bans 11 ingredients. Europe has banned over 1300 in order to protect its citizens.

As of now, cosmetic companies do NOT have to submit safety records, disclose ALL ingredients, report serious events or even adopt good manufacturing practices. As mentioned in a previous podcast, the FDA does NOT even have the authority to enforce the recall of personal care products that are deemed contaminated. Here is the site to the FDA about cosmetics: https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics

Here is the message on their own website, you can find it here: https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-laws-regulations/fda-authority-over-cosmetics-how-cosmetics-are-not-fda-approved-are-fda-regulated

The law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, to have FDA approval before they go on the market, but there are laws and regulations that apply to cosmetics on the market in interstate commerce.

The two most important laws pertaining to cosmetics marketed in the United States are the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA)External Link Disclaimer. FDA regulates cosmetics under the authority of these laws.

In the United States, federal laws are enacted by Congress. In order to make the laws work on a day-to-day level, Congress authorizes certain government agencies. such as FDA, to create regulations. A change in FDA's legal authority over cosmetics would require Congress to change the law.

Can FDA order the recall of a hazardous cosmetic from the market?

Recalls of cosmetics are voluntary actions taken by manufacturers or distributors to remove from the marketplace products that represent a hazard or gross deception, or that are somehow defective (21 CFR 7.40(a). FDA is not authorized to order recalls of cosmetics, but we do monitor companies that conduct a product recall and may request a product recall if the firm is not willing to remove dangerous products from the market without FDA's written request. To learn more, see “FDA Recall Policy for Cosmetics.”

We are behind when it comes to demanding the protection of our citizens, especially our most vulnerable, infants as well as the unborn. We must demand that harmful, toxic ingredients are eliminated from our products or at the very least allow us full disclosure so we as responsible consumers can make better choices.


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2. Qiao, Y. et al. (2009). Irritant and adjuvant effects of gaseous formaldehyde on the ovalbumin-induced hyperresponsiveness and inflammation in a rat model. Inhalant Toxicology, 21(14), 1200-1207.

3. Liu, X. et al. (2017). Acute formaldehyde exposure induced early Alzheimer-like changes in mouse brain. Toxicology Mechanisms and Methods, 1-30.

4. Rodrigo Camara-Lemarroy, C. Et al. (2015). Acute toluene intoxication–clinical presentation, management and prognosis: a prospective observational study. BMC Emergency Medicine, 15(19). doi: 10.1186/s12873-015-0039-0

5. Hannigan, J.H., & Bowen, S.E. (2010). Reproductive toxicology and teratology of abused toluene. Systems Biology & Reproductive Medicine, 56(2), 184-200. doi: 10.3109/19396360903377195.

6. Filley, C.M. et al. (2004). The Effects of Toluene on the Central Nervous System. Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology, 63(1), 1-12.

7. Aly, H.A. et al. (2016). Dibutyl phthalate induces oxidative stress and impairs spermatogenesis in adult rats. Toxicology & Industrial Health, 2(8), 1467-1477.

8. Young, A.S. et al. (2018). Phthalate and Organophosphate Plasticizers in Nail Polish: Evaluation of Labels and Ingredients. Environmental Science Technology, 52(21): 12841–12850. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.8b04495

9. Mendelsohn, E. et al. (2016). Nail Polish as a Source of Exposure to Triphenyl Phosphate. Environment International, 86, 45-51.

10. Green, A.J. et al. (2017). Perinatal triphenyl phosphate exposure accelerates type 2 diabetes onset and increases adipose accumulation in UCD-type 2 diabetes mellitus rats. Reproductive Toxicology, 68, 119-129. doi: 10.1016/j.reprotox.2016.07.009.

11. Hoffman, K. et al. (2015). Monitoring Indoor Exposure to Organophosphate Flame Retardants: Hand Wipes and House Dust. Environmental Health Perspectives, 123(2),160–165.

12. Cooper, G.S. et al. (2010). Occupational and environmental exposures and risk of systemic lupus erythematosus: silica, sunlight, solvents. Rheumatology (Oxford), 49(11), 2172–2180.

13. Vojdani, A. (2014). A potential link between environmental triggers and autoimmunity. Autoimmune Diseases, 1-18. doi:10.1155/2014/437231

14. Valle-Sistac, J. et al. (2016). Determination of parabens and benzophenone-type UV filters in human placenta. First description of the existence of benzyl paraben and benzophenone-4. Environmental International, 88, 243-249. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.12.034.

15. Panico, A. et al. (2019). Skin safety and health prevention: an overview of chemicals in cosmetic products. Journal of Preventive Medicine & Hygiene, 60(1), E50–E57. doi: 10.15167/2421-4248/jpmh2019.60.1.1080

16. www.ewg.org

17. www.skinsafeproducts.com

18. www.fda.gov

19. https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetics-laws-regulations/fda-authority-over-cosmetics-how-cosmetics-are-not-fda-approved-are-fda-regulated


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