As if deciding between colors called "Scallywag" and "Lady Sings the Blues" wasn’t hard enough, you may want to consider more than just looks when buying nail polish. According to a new study, a certain type of plasticizer may pose a risk to our endocrine system by entering our bodies through our fingernails.
The results have stirred up considerable controversy, both over the conclusions proposed by some of the study’s authors as well as the role consumer-advocate groups such as Environmental Working Group play in “scaring” consumers into a state of “chemophobia.” Chemicals are everywhere in nature, the home, workplace, our cars...but once again, we advocate awareness here at Wellness Warrior so you can dig in, make your own decisions—and in this case pay more attention to the beauty products we use.
First, the study.
Then, responses from two nail polish companies, both highly respected as advocates of nail systems that strive to be as healthy as possible.
Recent research on TPHP
Published in Environmental International earlier this week, the study was conducted by the Environmental Working Group and through Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Researchers tested for the presence of triphenyl phosphate, or TPHP, in the urine of women who used nail polish. TPHP has been associated with hormone imbalances and other metabolic abnormalities in animal test subjects and two studies have shown endocrine disrupting properties in humans.
Using 10 different nail polishes, most of which were selected because TPHP was listed as an ingredient, and 26 different subjects, the researchers established two separate nail painting regimes and monitored participants’ urine for the presence of a metabolite of TPHP over 24- and 48-hour periods. The metabolite was detected in 24 out of 26 urine samples collected 2-6 hours after application and after 10-14 hours all samples had detectable levels of the metabolite. In some cases the levels in the urine were raised 6.6 times higher than the sample taken before nail application. The authors conclude that using nail polish containing TPHP may increase the risk for internal exposure to the chemical:
These results suggest that nail polish use is likely a significant source of short-term TPHP exposure…As it has been estimated that adult women paint their nails approximately once per week on average, nail polish use may be a chronic source of exposure for many women."
Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a synopsis of the study, and discusses the general high prevalence of TPHP in human urine (regardless of nail polish use) as a result of its use as a flame retardant in furniture and other household items. EWG points a finger at nail polish manufacturers claiming they are creating another avenue for exposure. As Julia Lurie of Mother Jones indicates, the researchers theorize that although fingernails tend to be impermeable to most molecules, either the chemical leaches through the fingernails or another ingredient in the polish makes the nails more permeable.
Some normal questions arise...and controversy
The Duke-EWG study notes its limitations, and other shortcomings are stridently pointed out by pundits within the health and beauty industry who are concerned that EWG is erring on the side of sensationalization.
The researchers note that their small sample size of 26 and the homogeneity of their group (all young women who attended Duke) did not allow for a robust statistical analysis. In the health and beauty world, citing consumer-confidence-inspiring facts such TPHP’s good standing with FDA, international reviews of the chemical’s safety, and the quick metabolization and excretion of TPHP from the body, Dr. Beth Lang of the Personal Care Product Council concludes
American consumers should not be concerned by new research that is speculative, misleading and does not use sound science to assess the safety of an ingredient which has a long and well documented history of safe use."
Long-time beauty industry authority on regulation, and Co-Chair of the Nail Manufacturers Council (NMC) Doug Schoon, recently responded to EWG’s synopsis of the study with his fifteen points of contention and concluded:
Until we see fact-based evidence that these VERY low amounts of TPHP pose some type of health risk, I am not too concerned by the Duke Study."
All scientific studies come with a set of limitations as a matter of good scientific method. It is rare that one study can give a definitive answer. The study of chemicals and their human health impacts is particularly tricky because it is simply unethical to pursue human test trials on the toxicity of exposure. Lang and Schoon fall into a camp that is simply not convinced that the Duke-EWG study was definitive enough to warrant action.
Nail manufacturers respond...and we find TPHP-free options
Shel Pink, founder of SpaRitual, a product line that prides itself on using safe ingredients, is worried that EWG’s reporting of the study is misleading to the public. A company that is committed to safe formulations, she reported to Wellness Warrior that she stands by their traditional formulas and ingredients and feels good about continuing to use the products on a daily basis:
SpaRitual Nail Lacquer is and always has been formulated without the 5 ingredients associated with the “5 free” claim. SpaRitual Vegan Nail Lacquers are formulated without DBP, toluene, camphor, formaldehyde and formaldehyde resin. We hope that you will please read the press release put out by The Personal Care Products Council in response to the claims made by EWG: It explains in detail why consumers should not be concerned by new research that is "speculative, misleading and does not use sound science to assess the safety of an ingredient which has a long and well documented history of safe use."
If consumers are still concerned about using a product that contains this ingredient, our new SpaRitual GOLD Flexible Color System does not contain TPHP and is available now."
Others in the nail industry are dedicated to offering products free of TPHP. Dr. Vivian Valenty of Dazzle Dry, an innovator in the world of nail polish for over 20 years, has not used TPHP in the company’s products since its inception in 1993. Dazzle Dry is Vegan, Hypoallergenic and 6 free which includes Formaldehyde, Formaldehyde Resin, Toluene, DBP, Camphor and Nitrocellulose (in fact, they are the only nitrocellulose-free solvent based nail polish). Concerned with the information on the Medical Safety Data Sheet for TPHP acknowledging the plasticizer is a cholinesterase inhibitor, she was simply not satisfied with using it because these compounds can penetrate the blood brain barrier and affect the central nervous system:
At VB Cosmetics, we do not use TPHP in any of our products and therefore the Dazzle Dry Nail Lacquer System (Nail Prep, Base Coat, Nail Lacquer and Top Coat) is free of triphenyl phosphate (TPHP)."
True to its concern for the preservation of the environment, Dazzle Dry is also piloting a disposal program in which businesses can return empty bottles to the company so Dazzle Dry can properly dispose of the waste. The EPA considers nail polish a “household hazardous waste.”
The health and beauty industry, like any other industry, is not without its impacts, it’s true. However, because of the industry’s conscious consumer base and commitment to health, there are many companies out there, such as Spa Ritual and Dazzle Dry, who are figuring out how to minimize these impacts. The Duke-EWG study concludes that more research is needed to determine whether the reported levels of TPHP in urine poses a risk to human health, and it is clear that research on these types of subjects is paramount to making sure we understand the safety of the chemicals in our environment. With this particular study it seems that consumers will have to make an informed decision as best they can.
For more information on personal care products and their ingredients the Green Spa Network and Beauty-Heroes, provide excellent sources of information on things you may want to seek out for and things you may want to avoid.
Nail polish as a source of exposure to triphenyl phosphate via Science Direc
ASK DOUG: Is TPHP In Polish Toxic? via Nail Care Headquarters