Is Your Nail Polish Toxic? + Clean Brands

Recently, I have seen a couple articles talking about how nail polish makes you fat. Now, I think that may be a little overboard. But, could there be chemicals in our nail polishes that could be disrupting our hormones? And contributing to other health issues because of toxic chemicals? Let’s take a deeper look at some of the controversial ingredients in polish and how we can do our best to keep our nail routine free of toxins.


Toluene is used in nail polish to help suspend the color and to create smooth finishes. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, toluene evaporates quickly from nail polish and mixes with the air we breathe, where it is taken directly into the blood through our lungs.

Among their list of exposure concerns, some of the included are birth defects if inhaled while pregnant, immune, kidney and liver effects, headaches and dizziness[viii],[ix]. Companies like OPI, Orly, and Sally Hansen have removed toluene from their polishes, largely because of a multiyear campaign put on by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics[x]. Avoid if possible.


Oxybenzone, also known as Benzophenone, is used in substances like nail polish and lip balm to protect them from UV light, and has been linked to cancer and endocrine disruption[xi]. Studies have only been done on human cells and animals, but there is a strong suggestion that Oxybenzone is carcinogenic to humans and has the ability to be absorbed through the skin.

The International Agency for research on cancer looked at many of these studies and stated that there is sufficient evidence to show that this chemical is carcinogenic to animals, and is possibly carcinogenic to humans[xii].

The Environmental Working Group gives the chemical a hazard score of 8, and according to their Skin Deep Database, you can find it in Sally Hansen’s and Kylie Jenner’s Sinful Colors polish [xiii],[xiv],[xv]. Again, no human studies (which is probably a good thing  since it is a possible carcinogen…), but for me, it is guilty until proven innocent here.

TPHP - Triphenyl Phosphate

One of the common ingredients of concern is Triphenyl Phosphate. It is used in nail polish to make them harden and chip-resistant. It is also used in flame retardants. According to the Environmental Working Groups Skin Deep Database, out of 3,000+ nail products, approximately half of them have disclosed TPHP as one of their ingredients. This includes brands likes Sally Hansen, Essie, Revlon, Wet N Wild, Maybelline, and OPI, many of which I know I have used in the past[i].

But what does the science say? Most of the studies on hormonal disruption of TPHP have been performed on animals. Studies with zebrafish showed that TPHP exposure altered their sex hormone balance, which could harm reproductive performance, as well as impacted thyroid hormone production[ii],[iii]. It was shown to cause altered gene transcription and liver toxicity in embryonic chicken cells[iv]. Adult men exposed to TPHP had lower sperm counts, decreased sperm quality, and also produced more of the hormone prolactin, which stimulates breast development[v],[vi].

Even though most of these studies were done on animals, there is a high chance that these chemicals could have similar impacts on humans, and it obviously is not demonstrating health benefits in any way. More studies need to be done to determine the exact correlation, but this is a chemical I would suggest avoiding until otherwise proven safe to use.

This chemical is also controversial because it can be absorbed through the nails. A study done by a Duke researcher and EWG toxicologist performed a study with 26 women testing ten department store nail polish brands to see if the body was able to absorb TPHP through fingernail painting[vii]. The women provided urine samples before and after applying one brand of polish. They found that all 26 women had nearly a sevenfold increase in increase in DPHP, a TPHP metabolite, 10-14 hours after fingernail painting!

They performed this same test, but with 10 of the participants wearing gloves to see if breathing in the fumes would have the same effect. The glove wearing group showed significantly diminished levels of DPHP, showing that our primary exposure route is through the nails and skin. Their final quote stated: “Results indicate that nail polish may be a significant source of short-term TPHP exposure and a source of chronic exposure for frequent users or those occupationally exposed.”

Now this last study is a little alarming, but since the EWG partnered with Duke to perform it, the results could be a little biased due to their involvement. It was also a small test group and the first study of its kind to look at TPHP exposure. Although more studies would need to be done for me to be completely convinced of the ability of TPHP to leach into skin, the results here are still alarming, and I would rather avoid TPHP and play it safe until the chemical has, without a doubt, been proven safe to use.

How to Green Up Our Nail Polish Routine

Because it is hard to test potentially toxic substances on live humans, we have to somewhat base our decisions off animal or human cell studies. Even though some of these studies do not prove that these chemicals have direct carcinogenic or hormone disrupting effects, the correlation is very convincing in many or them and it is better to be safe than sorry.

It is enough evidence for me that, if I decide I do want to paint my nails (which I love doing, like most women…), I want to make sure that there are limited toxic chemicals that have the possibility of disrupting my hormones and overall health. Here are some steps you can take to limit exposure to toxins, yet still have pretty nails.

1. Use the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database or Think Dirty App to find less hazardous nail polish. Choose polishes that score a 3 or less. I like to use the brand SOPHi when I want to paint my nails, and I discovered them on the Skin Deep site. ! It’s a great resource, so use it!

2. Limit the amount of times you paint your nails. If you aren’t using polish, you aren’t taking the chance of exposing yourself to their toxins. Especially if you know the polish you are using may have some sketchy ingredients, but you just LOVE it, try limiting how often you use it and the lemgth of time you have it on.

3. Use brands that have better, healthier ingredients, so you don’t have to worry about toxins! Here are some suggested brands: SOPHi, Piggy Paint (for children), Keeki Pure and Simple, Ella + Mila, Zoya.

4. If you don’t like painting your own nails but still want to use clean brands, it is okay to take your own polish into the salon with you and have them use that. Avoid the salons base and top coats as well and invest in a good brand that you can take with you.

To have a clean polish collection, you may have to do some revamping and invest in new polish brands, but even an $8 bottle will last you a while. Always remember the 80/20 Rule - if you have a polish that may have some not-so-great ingredients in it, but you LOVE it and want to keep using it, just limit the amount of times you use it or have it on your nails, and make up for it by greening up another aspect of your beauty or body care routine.

Comment below your favorite nail polish brand! Extra point if you include color ;)



[i] “New Report: NAILED: Endocrine Disruptor In Nail Polish Gets Into Women's Bodies.” EWG,

[ii] Liu, X, et al. “Endocrine Disruption Potentials of Organophosphate Flame Retardants and Related Mechanisms in H295R and MVLN Cell Lines and in Zebrafish.” Aquatic Toxicology (Amsterdam, Netherlands)., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 June 2012,

[iii] Kim, S, et al. “Thyroid Disruption by Triphenyl Phosphate, an Organophosphate Flame Retardant, in Zebrafish (Danio Rerio) Embryos/Larvae, and in GH3 and FRTL-5 Cell Lines.” Aquatic Toxicology (Amsterdam, Netherlands)., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2015,

[iv] Su, G, et al. “Rapid in Vitro Metabolism of the Flame Retardant Triphenyl Phosphate and Effects on Cytotoxicity and MRNA Expression in Chicken Embryonic Hepatocytes.” Environmental Science & Technology., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 18 Nov. 2014,

[v] Carignan, Courtney C, and et. al. “Paternal Urinary Concentrations of Organophosphate Flame Retardant Metabolites, Fertility Measures, and Pregnancy Outcomes among Couples Undergoing in Vitro Fertilization.” Paternal Urinary Concentrations of Organophosphate Flame Retardant Metabolites, Fertility Measures, and Pregnancy Outcomes among Couples Undergoing in Vitro Fertilization, Dec. 2017,

[vi] Meeker, John D., et al. “Exploratory Analysis of Urinary Metabolites of Phosphorus-Containing Flame Retardants in Relation to Markers of Male Reproductive Health.” Endocrine Disruptors (Austin, Tex.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2013,

[vii] Mendelsohn, E, et al. “Nail Polish as a Source of Exposure to Triphenyl Phosphate.” Environment International., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2016,

[viii] ASTDR, Toxicologial Profile for Toluene, September 2000. Available online:

[ix] OSHA, OSHA Infosheet. Available online:

[x] “Toluene.” Safe Cosmetics,

[xi] “Benzophenone & Related Compounds.” Safe Cosmetics,

[xii] IARC (2012). Benzophenone. Available online: July 1, 2014.

[xiii] “OXYBENZONE.” OXYBENZONE || Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database | EWG,

[xiv] “Sally Hansen Hard as Nails Xtreme Wear Nail Color, Pucker Up.” Sally Hansen Hard as Nails Xtreme Wear Nail Color, Pucker Up || Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database | EWG,

[xv] “SinfulColors Kylie Jenner Trend MATTErs Collection Pure Satin Mattes, Korset (Maroon).” SinfulColors Kylie Jenner Trend MATTErs Collection Pure Satin Mattes, Korset (Maroon) || Skin Deep® Cosmetics Database | EWG,