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?

Dibutyl Phthalate


Why Is It In Nail Polish? What Is It?

DBP and other phthalates are what is known as “plasticizers”. These are additives that improve the plasticity of a substance.

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 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

Why Is It In Nail Polish? 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.

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
Methanediol

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)

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

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.

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