Is your nail polish making you fat? Or slowly poisoning you to death? If recent headlines are to be believed, the answer to both of those questions is yes. You probably saw some of the news coverage of a recent study by Duke University* and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) on an ingredient called Triphenyl Phosphate (TPHP or TPP) in nail polish. Here’s the original EWG article, which I found out about when my friend Kim sent it to me the day before the beauty internet exploded in panic.
I’m not a fan of hyperbole in the news, and I despise click-bait. The Chicken Little approach to reporting on scientific studies leaves a lot to be desired. I also have mixed feelings about EWG. They tend to overstate their case. Rather than being a disinterested consumer watchdog group, they have an agenda and aren’t above using deceptive language to support that agenda.
This TPHP situation is a good example. To read EWG’s take on it, painting your nails one time with a polish containing TPHP is akin to signing your own death warrant. It’s really not, as you can read in multiple items debunking EWG’s hysteria. (See here, here, and here. That last link contains chemical analysis and diagrams of molecules, if you’re into that sort of thing.)
TPHP is a plasticizing agent—it helps make the polish flexible enough to apply to your nails. It performs a task similar to Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), which has largely been eliminated from nail polish. (DBP is one of the big 3 toxic ingredients—when you see “3-Free,” it’s referring to DBP, Toluene, and Formaldehyde. “5-Free” polishes also eliminate Camphor and Formaldehyde Residue.)
The health concern over TPHP is that animal studies have shown that it can disrupt the endocrine system. This is a problem because endocrine disruptors can negatively affect reproductive, neurological, and immune systems. (The reason you likely buy plastic bottles labeled “BPA-free” is that BPA (bisphenol A) is also an endocrine disruptor.)
TPHP is prevalent in our everyday environment. The study found traces of TPHP in the subjects’ urine during the baseline tests, and found 6.3 times more of the chemical after the subjects painted their nails. That might sound like a big increase; however, the amount present before applying nail polish was almost negligible, so 6.3 times that amount is still almost negligible.
Fingernails are mostly impervious to molecules; therefore, it is very unlikely that anything showing up in your body got there by being absorbed through your fingernails. A more likely scenario is for chemicals to be absorbed through your skin. Obviously you’re not supposed to paint your cuticles when you paint your nails, but not everyone is a professional manicurist—it happens. It’s also possible for chemicals to be inhaled, but in the study, subjects wearing gloves and applying polish to synthetic nails didn’t experience the same increase in TPHP levels, making it unlikely that the chemical was inhaled.
Brands that were listed as containing TPHP include some of my favorites, including OPI, Sally Hansen, butter LONDON, Essie, and Orly. (Although an asterisk on butter LONDON indicates that the brand contacted EWG to let them know that they stopped producing polish with TPHP in 2014.)
The EWG database where one can supposedly check the safety of thousands of nail polish products is almost unusable. Searching seems to result either in no data or way too much data. I tried test searches for Zoya and OPI and found nothing useful.
Searching Zoya under “brand” resulted in no results. Searching Zoya under “everything” brought up three items, all nail polish removers. Searching OPI under “brand” resulted in 299 products, and searching OPI under “everything” returned an unmanageable number of results. Even with the 299 hits under “brand,” you have to look at each individual product to find anything useful, and you still can’t actually get an ingredients list. You just get EWG’s rating of whether the product is Low Hazard, Moderate Hazard, or High Hazard.
To find out if brands I like and use contain TPHP, I went straight to the horse’s mouth and contacted Zoya, China Glaze, Sephora, Orly, Deborah Lippmann, Ciate, and Seche Vite. After more than a week, I didn’t hear back from China Glaze, Orly, or Seche Vite. Here are the responses I did receive:
Zoya: “Thank you for your inquiry. We do not have the ingredient TPHP OR TPP in our polish. Thank you for the article. Have a beautiful day!”
TPHP-free quick dry top coat
Deborah Lippmann: Thank you for your interest in the Deborah Lippmann brand. We are committed to customer satisfaction and, above all, customer safety. As such, upon learning of the Duke University and Environmental Working Group’s study on potential hazards of Triphenyl Phosphate, we immediately evaluated our formulas and found that the majority of our nail colors and treatments are free of Triphenyl Phosphate. As for the select few nail colors and treatments that happen to contain Triphenyl Phosphate, we are looking into alternative formulations as soon as possible. We appreciate your understanding in this matter as we work towards a swift transition. If there is a particular color you are interested in please let me know and I can find out if it has TPHP in it.”
Ciate: “Thank you for your email and your interest in Ciate. All of Ciate nail polishes that are made in UK and US have TPHP, however all of the nail polishes made in Luxembourg are TPHP free. Hopefully soon we will only have nail polishes made in Luxembourg, so if you are interested in buying something right now it is safe for you to purchase the Broken Ballerina Collection and Mini Mani Month. However, we will have new collections coming out for spring/summer that will be made in Luxembourg which means they will not have TPHP.”
Sephora: Weirdly, their reply email instructed me to contact them via phone. First I had to explain what I wanted to the customer service representative, then I had to hold while she got a Beauty Advisor for me, then I had to explain what I wanted to the Beauty Advisor, then I had to hold while she looked it up. THAT’S NOT HOW YOU CUSTOMER SERVICE, SEPHORA!
Eventually, I was advised that the Sephora Formula X polishes do not contain TPHP. While I was on hold with them, I pulled up their website, and it turns out that they list the ingredients for their products right there on the site. If only I had known that sooner! Of note, the Formula X Shine top coat DOES contain TPHP.
Here’s my advice to you. If you want to limit the number of potentially toxic chemicals you come into contact with, use a brand that goes out of its way to emphasize its toxin-free formula, like Zoya or Ginger + Liz. When in doubt, just ask your favorite brand about their ingredients. Now that a spotlight is shining on TPHP, many brands will likely begin the search for a replacement plasticizer. But eliminating DBP is how we ended up with TPHP, so it seems likely we’ll be having this same conversation in five years about whatever replaces TPHP.
If you really love a brand that does contain TPHP, don’t worry too much about it. Either work on developing a steady hand so you don’t end up with nail polish on your cuticles, or use a nail clean-up tool after your manicure, like a pen or a brush. (Or get your nails done by a professional. But spending time in nail salons comes with its own hazards.)
And when you see reports about the latest thing that will kill you, whether it’s your nail polish or eating bacon, take them with a generous grain of salt. Everything—even water—will kill you in a high enough quantity.
*Full Disclosure: I went to law school at Duke, but I have no continuing affiliation with the University or its research teams.