If Looks Could Kill
The fears: Based on the phthalate studies mentioned above, the EU decided to ban DBP, which is commonly used to make nail polish flexible and chip resistant. (They ignored their own risk assessment, which determined that DBP was actually safe for use in cosmetics. The EU operates by the "precautionary principle," so if any dose of a chemical shows certain negative effects—even in rodents—they ban it.) Formaldehyde, a nail hardener, and toluene, the stuff that keeps polish fluid, are both sanctioned by the EU and CIR, but studies show they may increase your risk of cancer and respiratory problems—if you work in a factory where you are exposed to vast quantities of these chemicals every day for a period of years.
The facts: The controversy surrounding these chemicals has led many beauty companies to remove DBP, toluene, and formaldehyde from their polishes. But many doctors say the ingredients offer little cause for serious concern. Contact dermatitis is the primary risk you run by painting your nails with polishes that contain formaldehyde and toluene, says Jeannette Graf, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Medical Center. Both chemicals are more likely to cause irritation when they're moist, so try to keep freshly polished nails away from your skin until they're completely dry. There is no cancer or respiratory risk in inhaling their fumes in normal doses. As for DBP, according to calculations from the American Chemistry Council's Phthalate Esters Panel, you could use almost five bottles of nail polish every single day of your life—and absorb every bit of DBP in each bottle—and you still wouldn't reach the dose that caused problems in rodents. Plus, CIR studies have shown (and dermatologists agree) that nails are quite impermeable. The DBP studies on humans are highly controversial, and experts in the medical community are quick to point out flaws in the research. About phthalates and sperm damage: Marian Stanley, manager of the Phthalate Esters Panel, takes issue with the fact that "the samples were from infertile men, and there were no controls examining healthy, fertile men." She adds that the study's authors themselves admit their results are inconclusive and that more research is needed.
Jolene Edgar, a former beauty editor at O, is a writer living in Rhode Island.