Sunday, April 20, 2014

Is it Important to Get "Three Free" and "Five Free" Nail Polish?: The Science

I've had a few questions recently about two marketing buzzphrases in the nail polish business: "Three Free" and "Five Free".

"Three Free" nail polish is advertised as nail polish without Dibutyl Phthalate, Toluene, and Formaldehyde. "Five Free" nail polish is advertised as nail polish without Dibutyl Phthalate, Toluene, Formaldehyde, Formaldehyde Resin, and Camphor.

There's a lot of scary shit written online about all of these chemicals, but without a lot of facts backing them up. So, what are these ingredients, and do you actually need to avoid them?

Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/


Dibutyl Phthalate


Dibutyl Phthalate
Image Source: http://www.drugfuture.com/Pharmacopoeia/USP32/pub/data/images/v32270/cas-84-74-2.gif

What Is It?
DBP and other phthalates are what is known as "plasticizers". These are additives that improve the plasticity of a substance.

Why Is It In Nail Polish?
What happens when your nail polish isn't flexible? It CHIPS. DBP in nail polish gives a longer wear-time.

Why Are People Freaked Out?
Phthalates are a controversial group as a whole, and DBP is probably one of the nastier versions. It affects testicular differentiation in frogs and fetal rats, and it has been hypothesized that it might have an effect on human fetal testicular development as well. There is also some evidence that it may disrupt thyroid receptor activity.

What Does the Science Say?
As with all things, the dose makes the poison. (As does the subject, since most of you are probably not male fetuses.) DBP exposure is considered to be acceptable at a rate of 0.01 mg per kg of body weight. I can't find any specific studies that look at he exposure you would face based on typical nail polish use, so it's not clear whether adults will hit that threshold.

Personally, if there is one nail polish ingredient on this list that I would skip, this is the one. Luckily, for many of you, you probably don't have to do a lot to escape it. The European Union has banned the substance in cosmetics, and the only American producer, Eastman Chemical Company, stopped manufacturing DBP in 2011 (although it is still imported by a few companies). I'm currently unable to find a single major nail polish brand that is still using the substance (although if you are aware of one, feel free to leave it in the comments below).

It's also worth noting that, given the research on fetal development, it is probably more important to avoid DBP if you are pregnant.


Toluene
Toluene
Image Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2e/Toluol.svg/230px-Toluol.svg.png


What Is It?
Also referred to as phenylmethane, methylbenzene, or toluol, is what makes some nail polish smell like paint thinners. It is commonly used solvent.

Why Is It In Nail Polish?
Because toluene easily dissolves a wide variety of substances, using it as a nail polish solvent gives you a smooth, attractive application.

Why Are People Freaked Out?
Inhaling high doses of toluene results in headache, nausea, dizziness, drowsiness and confusion. It is also a minor skin irritant. Very high doses may harm the kidneys.

What Does the Science Say?
At the moment, concerns mostly center around inhalation of high doses. Solvent abuse ("huffing") or high levels of exposure in an industrial environment are the most significant concerns, rather than traditional nail polish use.


"Formaldehyde"

Formaldehyde
Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Formaldehyde-2D.svg
Methanediol
Image Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Methanediol-2D.png


What Is It?
Although nail polish companies commonly talk about "formaldehyde", formaldehyde is definitely not in your nail polish for one simple reason: formaldehyde is a gas. Formaldehyde definitely is toxic to all animals, causing death at high doses. It is also a known carcinogen, causing nasal cancer in rats.

If you are applying gas to your fingernails, we are not talking about the same products.

When we talk about "formaldehyde" in nail products, we're presumably talking about methanediol (also known as methylene glycol). When you add water to formaldehyde, you go from an aldehyde that is a gas to a diol (meaning there are two OH groups) that is a liquid. It is a completely different substance.

Why Is It In Nail Polish?
Formaldehyde has never been in nail polish. Methanediol is a cross-linking agent that stiffens and hardens nails. Thus, it is commonly used in nail hardeners.

Why Are People Freaked Out?
People have incorrectly conflated formaldehyde and methanediol due to cosmetic mislabeling.

What Does the Science Say?
It is completely incorrect to conflate the dangers associated with formaldehyde with methanediol. Methanediol is considered by the FDA to be safe up to 5% concentration. Most manufacturers use levels between 0.5% and 2%, well within the safe limits. Even at higher doses, the primary concerns are skin irritation and allergies.


Formaldehyde Resin (Tosylamide/Toluenesulfonamide/TSF Resin)

Image source: http://theorganicsolution.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/p-toluenesulfonamide.jpg

What Is It?
Despite the scary-sounding name, formaldehyde resin is also not the same thing as formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is used during the production of the substance, but is completely consumed by the reaction. Formaldehyde resin is a polymer, meaning the molecules stack together to make a durable film.

Why Is It In Nail Polish?
The resin helps the polish adhere to the nail, ensuring it won't peel or flake.

Why Are People Freaked Out?
Again, the word "formaldehyde" is scary.

What Does the Science Say?
Some research suggests that formaldehyde resin may be a concern for those who have significant levels of allergies or who are prone to contact dermatitis. Of course, all people should stick to painting their nails and not large chunks of their skin. Otherwise, despite the scary name, there is no evidence of harm.


Camphor
Camphor
Image Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/02/Camphor_structure.png

What Is It?
Camphor is a naturally-occurring chemical known for its strong scent. It has been used in European, Arabic, and Indian cuisine at various points in history. It gives a cooling feeling on the skin and is the active ingredient in Vick's VapoRub.

Why Is It In Nail Polish?
Camphor is another plasticizer, keeping your nails chip-free.

Why Are People Freaked Out?
Truly, I have no idea. Camphor is a poison when consumed in large doses. Adults typically see toxic effects after ingesting 2 g of pure camphor, with 4 g being the lethal dose.

What Does the Science Say?
Don't eat your nail polish.

What does it mean?

If you are buying standard nail polish brands in the United States or Europe and you are using them as intended (i.e. you are not eating or huffing them and you're putting them on your nail, rather than, say, your face), you're probably okay. If you have a tendency towards significant skin sensitivities (for example, if a nail polish has given you contact dermatitis in the past), you may want to be more careful around a few of these ingredients.

53 comments:

  1. This is pure gold. Thanks for the info!!!! I always wondered but never bothered to do the research.

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  2. Exactly this, is why you are my favorite blog to read. So informative and fascinating! I think you truly inspire folks to learn more.

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  3. As always, I chuckled all the way through this. And thank you for (at least partially) confirming my suspicion that 3-free/5-free polishes aren't as long-lasting or easy to use as the regular 'poisonous' ones :-P I don't drink my nail polish, so I'll continue feeling pretty safe just using whatever color looks nice.

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    1. I wouldn't necessarily conclude that there are any disadvantages to 3-free and 5-free polishes without any evidence, though.

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  4. I think I'm in love with this blog. Talk nerdy to me, please!

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  5. Love these very informative posts, thanks! One random bit of (hard earned) information: those with contact allergies don't actually have to paint the skin. It turns out this is mostly a concern because we touch our eyes a lot, transferring small amounts of [whatever] to thin eyelid skin. (Dry) nail polish is a major culprit when people complain of itchy/swollen eyelids.

    That said, you can be allergic to almost anything. I just track what polishes screw up my eyes and look for common ingredients.

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    1. Always a good idea for people with skin sensitivities! Thanks for adding.

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  6. Thank you so much. I've been trying to do some research about this but hadn't had a lot of luck.

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  7. Thank you SO much for this! I think there is so much hype and scare mongering when it comes to most ingredients that are considered "bad" in cosmetics, and then the companies latch onto that because they know it will get more products off the shelves, and the cycle perpetuates itself. Great info as always!

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    1. Yeah, marketing is hard to combat.

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  8. "Don't eat your nail polish." NOTED.

    I'm guessing Clinique's new line of hypoallergenic nail polishes come under a similar umbrella of 3/5-free polishes?

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    1. I've done no research into their ingredients, so I'm not sure!

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  9. Great post! I just love your blog. You break everything down so well. I always wondered why people were freaking out about these things, particularly the camphor. I'd heard about camphor being a skin irritant but then I wondered why that would matter unless people were putting nail polish all over their skin.

    Love the "What does the science say? Don't eat your nail polish." Excellent advice!

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  10. These posts make my stained and bitter old chemist's heart happy :-)

    May the Chem Gods smile on you for your erudition, and your efforts to instill erudition in others.

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  11. Fantastic post, people so love to jump on the 'You'll die a horrible, horrible death' bandwagon without understanding the science of ingredients. You've explained it so well.

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    1. It makes things like cancer seem less scary. :( Oh, just buy THIS nail polish and you won't have problems like those other people. CANCER SOLVED.

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  12. I love your posts like this. Now I don't feel bad for using OPI and Sally Hansen. Pacifica even has "7 Free" nail polish now... free of all the things you mentioned plus parabens, xylene and "animals" - the latter is my favourite. I'd hate to find a surprise animal in my polish.

    http://www.pacificaperfume.com/beauty/color/nail-polish/7-free-nail-polish?id=455

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    1. What gets me about the whole X-free thing - especially with Zoya pushing it as their main selling point and "letting" people "trade in" their other polishes in exchange for 50% off of Zoya every April - is ALMOST EVERY BRAND IS AT LEAST 3-FREE NOW. OPI, Sally Hansen, Revlon, etc. This includes the indie brands too, the ones you can only buy on Etsy and so forth, because they almost all use the same polish bases, which are all 3-to-5 free.

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    2. See I didn't even know OPI and Sally H were 3-free because they don't beat me over the head with it in their advertising like some brands do.

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    3. I made 400-free nail polish! It doesn't contain ozone, thalidomide, epinephrine, and many more!

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    4. Love this post!

      I just found your blog yesterday, and I am thoroughly enjoying it :)

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  13. Great post - I'd been wondering whether I should avoid these ingredients but didn't really get around to finding anything out about it. Thanks!

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  14. It all makes sense now! :) I couldn't wear nail polish for the longest time: I'd put it on, and my cuticles and the skin around my nails would start burning and stinging. ("get it off!") since discovering 3/5-free polishes, I haven't had that problem. Someday, I'd love to figure out which of the ingredients was causing that reaction (I have pretty extreme allergies so, hell, it might be all of them for all I know...)

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    1. If you compare the ingredients of the ones that caused problems and the ones that did not, you can likely narrow it down!

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  15. I'd also throw out that top coats with these chemicals often don't work with three/five free nail polishes. Lots of folks have problems with peeling or shrinking. I stick mostly to three free polishes not because I'm really scared of the chemicals, but because my favorite brands -- Butter London and Zoya -- just happen to be, and it's easier to make sure all my colors, bases and top coats work together.

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    1. Hm. I am not sure whether it is an incompatibility issue, or just a characteristic of the top coat (e.g. Seche Vite).

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  16. But what if I just want to eat a little. Just a tiny bit? The glitter looks delicious...

    Honestly there are a few companies who are doing the whole 3/5-free thing and their prices are jacked way the hell up there and I have been constantly disappointed in the polishes. Maybe just one company is stuck in my mind. In the end I just go for pretty colors. I probably put worse on my face and I tend to put my fingernails in my eyes less than my eyes are... in my eyes.

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    1. Almost every company is at least 3-free now. Most of them don't make it a big marketing point, oddly enough. I found this out through idle googling one day. Toss the brand name into Google with "3-free" and you'll see. The ones who really market it do tendto be a little pricier, but not as much so as, say, Deborah Lippman ($19?!?)... although Julep does average out really high per ounce and they do use this as a marketing tool.

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    2. Yeah, most things are three-free, though not all, for sure.

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  17. Thank you for explaining the difference to me. I will no longer be afraid of science, or at least until scare-tactic-marketing comes up with the next thing.

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  18. ok-I feel like I'm being nitpicky, but the conversion from geminal diols to ketones does actually happen with water. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geminal_diol. Not a lot in the case of formadehyde-the equilibrium is around .1% of the methane diol. You are right about not being afraid. Also the fact that mainstream brands are mostly already free of these. And I love the "don't eat your nail polish". ok then, I won't. But only because you saved me.

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    1. The equilibrium thing is a fair point. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

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  19. I've always wondered about Seche Vite. Best top coat ever, but it has crazy warning labels about pregnant ladies in California (or something to that effect). It also smells pretty pungent/chemically. But man, it's a really great top coat.

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    1. I wouldn't recommend getting too freaked out about California-based warning labels...

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    2. I'm a little late to the party but I found this article helpful on Seche Vite: http://www.xovain.com/nails/is-seche-vite-safe

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  20. I have a couple of products with toluene in them, and every time I use one I am super glad that the vast majority of my polish does not have it, because the smell is SO unpleasant. But I'm not afraid it's going to kill me or anything, and I am All Done Having Babies. I do prefer to use *-free on my kid, because he's not always so good at "fingers away from face/mouth."

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    1. Yeah, it's not a pleasant smell... but it does the job.

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  21. The X-free nonsense has gone way too far, thanks for writing this!

    On the formaldehyde/methanediol thing though - it's a reversible equilibrium, so saying there's never been any formaldehyde in nail polish is like saying there's never been any carbon dioxide in Coke.

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    1. Equilibrium is a fair point, although you definitely end up with almost entirely products on that one! Thanks for adding.

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    2. It's still a formaldehyde emitter though - the only sources supporting the "purely cosmetics mislabelling" idea seem to be Doug Schoon (who works for a nail company) and people quoting him (generally nail mags with, um, questionable scientific rigour).

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  22. Funny how the chemical structure of DBP looks like a lil dead guy lying there. Haha, truth in chemistry.

    Great post! I always figured this was the deal, pretty much. I mean, camphor? Nobody's banning Vapo-Rub. Etc.

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  23. I was reading the first paragraph and though 'wtf, how is there gas in a nail polish?' Thanks for clearing that up!

    Is the same true for hair products? There was worry about formaldehyde in salons here last year, but the TV segment I saw wasn't clear on whether it was in the actual hair products or whether it in fumes from the products when they were heated or mixed.

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  24. Hi, I've been stalking your blog for a bit now... this is my favorite post so far. Thanks!

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  25. اعمال شركة تنظيف بالرياض متميزة داخل المنطقة التي تعمل بها لانها تعمل علي تقديم كل ما هو جديد في عالم النظافة لتقديم خدمة متميزة للعميل فتعامل مع شركة تنظيف فلل بالرياض ستلاقي فريق من العمال لدك مختصين في اعمال نظافة الفلل وهذا يحدث ايضا مع شركة تنظيف خزانات بالرياض
    والتي تعمل علي نظافة الخزانات وتعقيها للقضاء علي الاوساخ والبكتريا الصغيرة التي توجد بها معكم ايضا شركة تنظيف مسابح بالرياض التي تعمل علي الصيانة والتنظيف بواسطة اثنين من الفنين المختصين في مجال المسابح واليك خدمة اساسية تلبي لك العيش في بيئة خالية من الحشرات الصغيرة من خلال قسم شركة مكافحة حشرات بالرياض الذي يعمل علي القضاء علي جميع الحشرات المنزلية كما يوجد قسم اخر في مجال مكافحة الحشرات وهو شركة رش مبيدات بالرياض التي تقدم خدمة الوقاية والقضاء علي هذه الافات بواسطة مبيدات طبيعية

    ReplyDelete

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