Can nail polish harm a baby?

Written by catherine julia scott
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Can nail polish harm a baby?
Pretty nails are dangerous? (Getty Thinkstock)

Nail polish is essentially a paint similar to that used on motor vehicles and it shouldn't come as a surprise that regular layering of the coloured lacquer onto a part of the human body is not only an unhealthy habit for ourselves but is potentially harmful to babies.

How harmful?

There are two ways in which nail polish can affect those who wear it, through inhalation and absorption. Nail polish’s noxious odour is an indication the chemical concoction used to create a bright coloured paint that can both stick to the nail and resist the wear-and-tear of daily life. What you inhale when you open a bottle of nail polish is essentially a mix of alcohols, resins and solvents – the very same volatile organic compounds (VOCs) used in household paints, the most of which are carcinogenic and neurotoxic.

As well as becoming air-borne and inhaled, the chemicals in nail polish are absorbed into the body through the nail bed. There is a whole host of unsavoury ingredients that make up the contents of nail polish but the most notorious of these is the “toxic trio.”

Toxic trio

The so-called “toxic trio” is made up of dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene and formaldehyde. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is the chemical which is used to help the coloured lacquer stick to the nail. Laboratory tests have shown cancer and birth defects such as “underdeveloped genitals and other long-term fertility problems” in lab animals with extended exposure to dibutyl phthalate.

Toluene is used in nail polishes to give the paint its smooth finish. It is believed that there is a direct causal relationship between extended exposure to toluene and “birth defects and developmental problems” in the children of the exposed women.

Formaldehyde, the last of this so-called "toxic trio," is used as a cosmetic preservative and is a carcinogen.

Non-toxic nail polish

In recent years, the ill-effects of toxins in nail polish have come to the attention of cosmetics companies, some of whom are working towards removing these toxic chemicals from their nail polishes and products.

Recent research conducted by the Pollution Prevention Branch of the Department of Toxic Substances Control for the California Environmental Protection Agency examined a wide range of nail polishes and other salon products in order to elicit whether they contained toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and formaldehyde.

The disturbing discovery was that the labelling on nail polishes does not always accurately indicate the ingredients of the products and therefore cannot be trusted. Many of the self-claimed toxin-free nail polishes do in fact contain toxins, says scientist Valetti Lang.

To paint or not to paint?

What these findings indicate is that regardless of promises of being toxin-free, nail polishes may contain chemicals which could potentially affect their unborn babies. Pregnant woman who regularly paint their nails are increasing risk of being exposed to harmful toxins which enter the body through the inhalation of nail polish fumes or absorption of chemicals through the nail bed.

Although for the average nail polish user there is only a slim chance of serious health hazards or birth defects, any risk is risk and therefore worth avoiding.

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