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Is Nail Polish Toxic for Your Toenails?

Toenail Polish

Painting your toenails may seem like an innocent part of your beauty routine (and maybe an essential part when it comes to sandal season), but are these colourful little bottles causing more damage than you realise?

Nails require oxygen to remain healthy. The keratin in your nails also allows water to pass through to hydrate the area. If your nail begins to dry out, crack, break or peel this can be a sign that something is wrong with your nails or your overall health. Nail polishes are one of the most common offenders, causing nail discoloration and other symptoms of poor nail health. But are they really as dangerous as some studies suggest?

The Toxic Trio

Until recently, many nail polish brands contained dangerous ingredients such as formaldehyde, dibutyl phythalate and toluene, a combination commonly referred to as the "toxic trio."


Formaldehyde is one of the chemicals used to harden the nail polish. Exposure to the chemical, i.e. breathing it in, can cause irritation to the lungs, throat, nose and eyes. Exposure to formaldehyde in large amounts over a long period of time also increases your risk getting cancer.

Serious health concerns have been raised on the effect of the chemical among pregnant women because of the way formaldehyde is broken down by the body. Across the UK, regulations restricting the level of formaldehyde to be used in manufactured products are already in place. According to these regulations only 0.2% of the chemical should be used.

Dibutyl Phthalate

Dibutyl phthalate is a potential developmental and reproductive toxin that increases your risk of dizziness, headaches and fatigue.


Toluene is responsible for that smooth glide the polish gives. Exposure to this chemical also causes irritation to the lungs, throat and eyes. Overexposure to this chemical can result in serious nervous system damage. Again, pregnant women need to be careful when using nail polish containing this chemical as it is thought to cause birth defects. However, for this to be a real possible risk, you need to be inhaling the chemical directly and consistently. For example, nail technicians and those who apply nail polish all the time are at risk of overexposure to this chemical are mostly likely the ones in danger.

Wearing a nail polish containing these three ingredients, sees them absorbed via the nail bed, increasing your risk of side effects.  

What to Watch Out For

In 2006 and 2007 nail polish brands (for example, Sally Hansen) phased many of these dangerous chemicals out of their formulas. Dibutyl phytalate has been banned from use in beauty products since 2005, but in America it is not restricted for use in beauty products.

And while many companies have limited the use of toxic chemicals in their polishes, some products still contain concerning chemicals to help the product remain glossy, dry quickly or last on the fingernails.

It is important to check the label when purchasing nail polish to ensure that the product is safe. Be sure to look out for other harmful products like isopropyl alcohol, fragrances, dyes or ethyl acetate. Harmful compounds like these also pose a threat to the environment. When nail polish is thrown away, the toxic chemicals in the mixture can leech into the soil or groundwater.