A woman with bright nail polish gathers stones on a beach.

Many Canadians believe that because nail polish is widely available on store shelves and sports no warning label, it is free of health risks. They are, sadly, mistaken.

Although cosmetics producers in Canada are required to disclose product ingredients, they don’t have to warn you about the health concerns associated with those ingredients.

According to the David Suzuki Foundation 2010 report What’s Inside? That Counts, 80 per cent of cosmetics contain at least one ingredient linked with health and environmental concerns, including cancer, reproductive disorders, asthma and severe allergies.

Your bottle of nail polish has at least three.

  1. Dibutyl phthalate— Used as a solvent for dyes and as a plasticizer to prevent nail polishes from becoming brittle, this phthalate is classified by the EU as a suspected endocrine disruptor and as toxic to reproduction. Health Canada associates DBP with liver and kidney failure in young children when products (and polished little fingers) containing phthalates are sucked or chewed for extended periods. Although Health Canada banned six phthalates (including DBP) in soft vinyl children’s toys, its use in cosmetics is not restricted. The European Union classifies DBP as very toxic to aquatic organisms.
  2. Formaldehyde— Formaldehyde is a common ingredient in nail hardeners in concentrations of up to five per cent. In nail polish, tosylamide/formaldehyde resin is used, and may contain residual formaldehyde concentrations of up to 0.5 per cent. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.
  3. Toluene— According the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, toluene is a moderate skin irritant that can cause dermatitis with prolonged contact. It is also a developmental toxicity hazard and has been identified in human milk. Inhalation of toluene vapour can affect the central nervous system causing slight drowsiness and headache at low levels and Irritation of the nose, throat and respiratory tract at increased levels.

Does this mean you have to stick to plain nails to stay healthy? Not necessarily!

There are good resources out there to help you choose options that are safe for you and the environment.

Try the EWG’s Skin Deep database which provides a comprehensive overview of nail polishes on the market.

Queen of Green image that reads: David Suzuki's Queen of Green gives you tips and recipes to live sustainably.