Manicured hands have been fashionable since the times of Cleopatra. Ancient Egyptians reputedly used henna to dye their nails a reddish brown color, and the trend continues to this day. But the nail polish industry hasn't stuck to the natural and relatively harmless plant-based dye used by the Egyptians. Over the years, solvents, lacquers, phthalates and other toxic chemicals have increasingly been used to achieve the shiny, durable and quick-drying results that consumers expect today. Is it possible to have the best of both worlds—a natural, safe nail polish with luster, resilience and a speedy drying time? Natural nail companies say the answer is yes.
Crowded with chemicals
Open a bottle of conventional nail polish and the first thing you'll notice is the odor. Leave it open on your coffee table and soon the whole room will be ripe with a distinct—and repulsive—scent. Why the stink? "That smell is coming from the chemicals found in conventional nail polishes, including petrochemical solvents like xylene and toluene, formaldehyde or some derivative of it, and phthalates," says Mark Deason, technical liaison for Tucson, Ariz.-based Acquarella, a water-based nail polish company.
Two petroleum-based chemicals commonly found in nail polish and polish remover are xylene and toluene, which are solvents used to prevent chipping of the polish. These types of solvents are also found in gasoline, lighter fluid, spot removers, aerosol sprays, paints, paint thinners, paint removers, glues, and floor and tile cleaners. A March 1999 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who were exposed to solvents during pregnancy had a significantly increased risk of "major fetal malformations." Furthermore, in a September 2005 issue of Pathology, a study reported that exposure to xylene and other solvents, including toluene, affected liver health, hearing and sight, and caused burning, redness and dermatitis. "In experimental studies, xylene at about 100 parts per million had a deleterious effect on equilibrium, reaction time and manual coordination in non-adapted subjects." The study notes that 100 parts per million is considered to be the limit for a safe amount of xylene in the work environment for several countries.
This colorless, flammable gas is the ingredient that is mostly responsible for nail polish's strong smell. It is classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to the National Cancer Institute. The institute also asserts that most exposure to formaldehyde occurs when the fumes are inhaled, and when it is absorbed through the skin, both of which are likely to happen when applying nail polish. A 2003 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that "relative risks for Hodgkin's disease increased with formaldehyde exposure [and that] exposure to formaldehyde may cause leukemia, particularly myeloid leukemia, in humans."
Phthalates are a class of chemicals used as plasticizers, or softening agents, in consumer products. The National Toxicology Program has expressed concern that exposure to the phthalate DEHP can adversely affect reproductive development in boys over the age of 1.
"Consumers are concerned with being healthy on the inside, they eat right and work out, and they also want to only use healthy products on the outside, too," says Melissa Tracton, president and co-founder of Boca Raton, Fla.-based No Miss Nail Care, a natural nail polish company. "Our polish contains no chemicals or cancer-causing agents."
Some naturals companies, like Tracton's, have taken a stab at formulating nail polishes that avoid all or most harmful chemicals and still retain the qualities consumers look for. "Our nail polish is water- based and completely odorless. It took us eight years to develop the resin for polish so that it hardened and dried like conventional—we really wanted to avoid all of those chemicals but create an alternative that didn't sacrifice quality," says Melissa Hertzler, president of Leesport, Pa.-based Honeybee Gardens. Hertzler's product is also free of Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act-approved coloring agents, which are legal to use in cosmetic products, but can be allergens for some people. "We use mineral pigments and iron oxides to naturally color our polishes. We can even create fashionable effects like frosts and shimmers with these ingredients—there's really no difference between our polish and conventional except that it's better for you and the environment," she says. Honeybee Gardens' nail polish has become its No. 1-selling product, according to Hertzler.
Deason admits that Acquarella's polish may rub off more quickly when it is exposed to certain ingredients in health and beauty products like lotions or shampoos. "A lot of people use chemicals that interfere with the adhesion of our polish. Water-based nail polish doesn't do well if you have oils on your nail surface, or when it comes in contact with moisturizers that contain alcohol, but the payoff is worth it. Our nail polish is so nontoxic you could drink it. In fact, when we get our toxicology reports back, they say that our product has less toxins than most of the municipal tap water in the United States," Deason says.
Chemical-free nail polish also helps the environment. "You technically should dispose of nail polish the way you would paint or other harsh home products—it's illegal to throw it down the drain. But ours can go directly into your sink because it's water based. It won't hurt the environment," Hertzler says. Furthermore, Deason says it's beneficial for retailers to carry water-based nail polish because it cuts back on their volatile organic compound emissions. "Upcoming regulations are going to stipulate that retailers comply with specific VOC levels for products they carry in their store. VOCs deplete the ozone and emit toxic gasses. If you carry less of these hazardous materials in your store, you're going to be ahead of the game on these types of regulations," Deason says.
Finally, natural nail polishes are much safer for children, who have been known from time to time to break out mom's makeup kit and play dress up. "We offer a peel-off nail polish that's great for kids," Hertzler says. "It's nontoxic and less messy, and moms love it."
And kids aren't the only ones who enjoy the simple fun of applying nail polish. "Nail polish will never lose its appeal because it's just fun to look pretty—it completes any look," Tracton says. Give your customers a hand and make them aware of the benefits of natural nail polish.
Christine Spehar is a fashionable freelance writer in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.30,32