Many nail polish brands claim that their offerings are free of certain toxic chemicals. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control put those claims to the test in a lab — and the findings are, well, concerning.
Investigators randomly chose 25 brands of polishes that are available only at nail salons, including a number of products claiming to be free of the chemicals toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and formaldehyde, which are known as the toxic trio. Regulators said exposure to large amounts of the chemicals has been linked to developmental problems, asthma and other illnesses.
Investigators found that 10 of 12 products that claimed to be free of toluene actually contained it, with four of the products having dangerously high levels.
The report also found that five of seven products that claimed to be "free of the toxic three" included one or more of the agents in significant levels.
Formaldehyde, toluene, and DBP are all legal cosmetic ingredients in the U.S. — despite the fact that they have been linked to everything from cancer to birth defects to ataxia. But the presence of these ingredients is supposed to be disclosed in product labeling.
The problem is, no public authority tests the stated ingredients of products like nail polish for accuracy — let alone safety — prior to sale. This is because nail polish, like shampoo, tooth paste, and moisturizer is not considered a "drug" or a "medical device," but instead falls into the looser category of "personal-care products." Cosmetics companies can lie. And moves to give the FDA even minimal authority to oversee personal-care products have been fiercely opposed by the cosmetics industry.
The products tested by the state include Sation 99 basecoat, Sation 53 red-pink nail color, Dare to Wear nail lacquer, Chelsea 650 Baby's Breath Nail Lacquer, New York Summer Nail Color, Paris Spicy 298 nail lacquer, Sunshine nail lacquer, Cacie Light Free Gel Basecoat, Cacie Sun Protection Topcoat, Golden Girl Topcoat, Nail Art Top-N-Seal and High Gloss Topcoat. If those sound unfamiliar to you, it may be because you mostly do your nails at home — the DTSC chose to focus on salon-only brands because of the elevated risk faced by salon workers. It doesn't mean your drugstore nail polish — or your department store nail polish — is any more (or less) likely to be accurately labeled. It just means it hasn't been tested.
The companies whose products tested positive for the chemicals they claimed they didn't contain may face fines for snowing the public with their labels — and possibly legal action. The controversy over the "Brazilian Blow-Out" hair-straightening process, which was marketed to consumers and salons as "formaldehyde-free" but proved in fact to be formaldehyde-laced, was ignited following similar testing performed by the state of California. And when the dust had settled from the resulting lawsuit, Brazilian Blow-Out had to pay consumers a $4.5 million settlement.
It's probably too soon to be counting on a class-action payment for all those bottles of supposedly "DBP-free" nail polish in that shoebox under the bed — and at any rate, it is salon workers (and not casual customers) who are most put at risk by misleading labeling and potentially dangerous ingredients, due to their prolonged exposure. (Risks from exposure are minimized with good ventilation, but most nail salons, you may have noticed, are not so well-ventilated. Manicurists, many of whom are immigrants, are also vulnerable to wage theft and poor working conditions. Some are paid as little as $2 per hour.) But it is concerning because so many nail polish companies — including top brands like Essie, OPI, Butter London, Orly, Sally Hansen, Zoya, and Deborah Lippman — proudly tout their DBP-, toluene-, and formaldehyde-free products. Some of us buy those brands, as opposed to their competitors, specifically because of those claims. Are they telling the truth?