April 11, 2012 -- Although the state of California this week reported finding a "toxic trio" of ingredients in some inaccurately labeled nail polishes, there's no need to give up those mani-pedis in the name of health.
"Manufacturers have broken the level of trust with the public and with the nail salon community," said Julia Liou, co-founder of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, Tuesday before appearing with state officials to discuss the findings of the report.
"No one can trust the labels," Liou said. The report said that some nail polish manufacturers are making claims on their product labels to be free of the "toxic trio" of chemicals linked to cancer, asthma and birth defects, even though state testing of 25 products in some cases detected them.
While accepting that some labeling may be unreliable and could be improved, consumers who want painted nails also should think about where they're having their nails done. Air quality inside a salon is important no matter how often patrons come in. It's even more important to the thousands of licensed manicurists -- 121,000 in California alone -- who may breathe chemical fumes 10 hours a day, seven days a week, said Liou, a public health administrator at Asian Health Services in Oakland, who is among advocates pressing for better ventilation to dissipate the concentrated chemical vapors.
In its "Safer Nail Salons," report, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control tested 25 randomly selected nail polishes and thinners for three common chemicals that make nail lacquers shiny, quick-drying and flexible.
One of the three toxins, the aromatic solvent toluene, can irritate the eyes, throat and lungs, damage the nervous system and potentially harm an unborn child. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which keeps polish from becoming brittle, also can cause reproductive harm. Formaldehyde, a nail hardener also used in a wide variety of products including air fresheners and the Brazilian Blowout hair straightener, is a known carcinogen.
Tests found toluene in 10 of a dozen products labeled toluene-free, and also identified at least one member of the toxic trio in five of seven products labeled as "three-free."
Despite the chemical exposures inherent in applying base coats, color, top coats and nail-hardeners to fingernails and toenails in the name of beauty, here are some ways to reduce health risks.
Consider water-based polishes like those made by Acquarella, which don't give off fumes, instead of solvent-based polishes, said Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
"I use it and it doesn't smell, which is a novelty," Malkan said.
Try brands like OPI and Sally Hansen, which have made concerted efforts to eliminate the most toxic chemicals from their nail polishes since the European Union banned the use of DBP in cosmetics in 2004 and a 2006 public campaign put pressure on the $6 billion nail care products industry to make formula changes, said Lisa Archer, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
"Clearly, it's possible to make a safer product," Archer said.
Keep children and toddlers out of nail salons. "Minimizing any exposure for kids is important, because that's when they're most vulnerable to the harmful effects of some of these chemicals," Malkan said.
Children Can Bring Their Own Non-Toxic Polishes to Parties
If you have a child who insists on having or attending birthday parties where nail decoration is part of the fun, think about sending her off with her own supply of a non-toxic polish from Hopscotch Kids, suggests Jennifer Taggart, a Los Angeles consumer products attorney, blogger and author of "The Smart Mama's Green Guide."
Taggart, who before her marriage sported acrylic nails, said she's reluctant to allow her daughter to have a salon manicure "because you don't control what they're using, you don't know about the ventilation, and there are people doing acrylics or gels or all the other types of applications."
Taggart remembers refusing to let her daughter participate at a princess party where the children's nails were being polished and spritzed with a quick-drying nail spray. Although she considers the bring-your-own-polish technique a compromise, it has allowed her daughter to avoid feeling left out and allowed Taggart to sleep at night.
Try to find a well-ventilated spot when you visit a nail salon. Consider sitting close to an open window, or step outside for some fresh air, Malkan said.
Do-it-yourselfers should choose well-ventilated areas for at-home manicures and pedicures.
Reduce or eliminate your visits to nail salons as soon as you know you're pregnant. The developing fetus is particularly sensitive to the volatile chemicals in polishes and thinners.
Manicurists should consider working in a well-ventilated salon. Even better, they should have exhaust hoods at their nail stations, Malkan said. They also should consider wearing masks and gloves to protect lungs and skin from chemical irritants.
If you're concerned about ingredients in your favorite brands of nail polish, Malkan suggested going to the Skin Deep online safety database, created by the Environmental Working Group, which ranks products from 0 to 10, and choose products at the lower end of the scale, from 0 to 2.
When in doubt about product formulations, contact the manufacturer by phone or email, Taggart suggested. She said she worries less about the effects of the toxic trio in nail polish alone than the cumulative effects of multiple exposures to the formaldehyde that's also in pressed wood products and secondhand smoke and the phthalates also in face creams, perfumes and scented products. "You have to be aware of label claims and realize that they're not always accurate, whether it's a product saying it's natural or green, or whether saying it's free of a particularly chemical," she said. "Ask the company what standard do you use? How do you test? Who verifies it?"