Which Nail Polish Ingredients are Dangerous?

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Several environmental groups have actively campaigned to increase consumer awareness about potentially harmful nail polish ingredients in recent years. In particular, they have pointed a finger at dibutyl phthalate (DBP), the substance that makes fingernail polish dry to a smooth varnish. While DBP is banned in Europe, it can sometimes still be found among nail polish ingredients in the U.S. Given the number of other chemicals used to make nail polish, however, DBP is just one of a list of dangerous toxins sometimes found in this beauty product.

Clear nail polish.
Clear nail polish.

Industrial solvents are commonly included as nail polish ingredients and may pose a threat to the nervous system due to habitual or prolonged inhalation of their fumes. Toluene, for instance, is one ingredient that promotes a feeling of intoxication when inhaled. It has also been linked to neurological disturbances in humans and impaired fetal development in animal studies. Another solvent, methylene chloride, is classified by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as a potential carcinogen. It also increases the risk of hypoxia in people with cardiovascular disease, a condition that depletes tissues of oxygen.

Some nail polish in the U.S. uses dibutyl phthalate, a toxin.
Some nail polish in the U.S. uses dibutyl phthalate, a toxin.

Many other nail polish ingredients are known to be carcinogenic. Formaldehyde, which is used in hail hardeners but usually not in nail polish, has been shown to produce nasal squamous cell cancers in rats and there is a high incidence of brain cancer in humans exposed to this chemical in occupational settings, such as morticians and pathologists. Benzoyl peroxide, better known as an acne medication, is an industrial chemical added to self-curing plastics. It is also a common nail polish ingredient that has been linked to skin cancer in animals.

Nail polish often contains industrial solvents.
Nail polish often contains industrial solvents.

Glycol ethers also present certain health hazards. They have been shown to reduce sperm count and increase the rate of miscarriages in both animals and humans at very low exposure concentrations. In fact, toxicity from glycol ethers can occur without the telltale symptoms of nausea or dizziness.

Many brands of nail polish contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
Many brands of nail polish contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

Despite the number of potentially toxic chemicals in nail polish, it does not necessarily mean everyone needs to stop polishing their nails. Many big name manufacturers have removed DBP, formaldehyde, and toluene from their nail polish formulations and several new companies have emerged to produce natural nail polishes. Of course, a careful inspection of the list of ingredients is a good idea before purchasing any nail product. In addition, people who get their nails done in a salon — or do them at home — should make sure that there is proper ventilation.

Some nail polish ingredients are carcinogens.
Some nail polish ingredients are carcinogens.
Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier

Contributing articles to wiseGEEK is just one of Karyn’s many professional endeavors. She is also a magazine writer and columnist, mainly for health-related publications, as well as the author of four books. Karyn lives in New York’s Catskill Mountain region and specializes in topics about green living and botanical medicine.

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Discussion Comments


Use zoya nail polish. It doesn't have dangerous ingredients!


Just more misleading info to try and scare people!

99.9% of nail polishes don't use ingredients like methylene chloride or benzoyl peroxide. Similarly, formaldehyde is rarely used except occasionally in nail strengtheners. There is heaps more emotion going on here than good science!


If your child is only three years old, you probably shouldn't be painting her fingernails unless the polish is specifically for children. If you still insist on painting her nails, I recommend you paint them outside and have her refrain from putting her hands near her face until the polish is completely dry.


I believe "nail polish on babies" is a bad idea! It's not just if baby puts her fingers/toes in it's mouth - What about the fumes the baby is breathing while you are applying or removing it? Are these mothers even considering this when applying/removing their own?


My friend's daughter paints her six month old baby girl's toenails! Please send feedback ASAP!


why is your three year old using nail polish?


Please forward the name of a nail polish manufacturer that does not use formaldehyde or glycol heaters. I have a bad thumb nail - after the nail has healed I like to by a chemical free polish. thank you, U


Glycol ethers, just like the article says.


My 3yo daughter has almost passed out from nail polish fumes. What would cause that?

She only had a little bit on one finger and she smelled it and then got dizzy.

Has anyone else experienced this?

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