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Can you make yourself sick with your nail biting habit if you use nail polish? Is nail polish remover safe? Here are some ways to make sure your nail polish is non-toxic, and also to avoid other problems caused by biting nails.

Onycophagia, an obsession with biting nails (either fingernails or toenails or both), is a surprisingly common condition. An epidemiological study found that 1.5 percent of adult men and 3.4 percent of adult women had a history of biting nails so often as to cause visible disfigurement. More than just a "nervous habit," nail biting causes are associated with identifiable problems in the reward system in the brain, and when people not only bite but swallow fragments of their nails, there can be digestive problems. More commonly, however, the most serious physical consequence of biting nails occurs in people who use nail polish, which often contains one of more of three toxic compounds.

The Toxic Trio in Nail Polish

The Environmental Working Group tested over 100 brands of nail polish for toxic chemicals in 2005. This study found that five brands contained formaldehyde resin, eight brands contained formaldehyde, 37 contained toluene, and 89 contained dibutyl phthalate. Each of these chemicals causes serious concerns.

  • Formaldehyde resin and formaldehyde are preservatives (they're used in embalming bodies at the funeral home) that also harden the nails and keep polish from chipping. A known carcinogen, formaldehyde can cause sneezing, wheezing, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, and immune dysregulation. Both products are banned in nail polish in the European Union but permitted in the USA.
  • Toluene is a clear, colorless liquid that is used as a paint thinner. It helps nail polish spread more smoothly and to dry faster. It doesn't stay on your nails once the nail polish dries, but it's very volatile and can be breathed in while the polish is being applied. Toluene can cause sore throat, headache, dizziness, and fatigue, and in large amounts it can interfere with reproductive organs, the liver, and the kidneys. Like formaldehyde, toluene is banned in the European Union but permitted in the United States.
  • Dibutyl phthalate is common chemical used to make plastics. It's also found in paint, pesticide, and numerous personal care products. In nail polish, it's added to make nails shiny. It is also associated with disruption of the production of reproductive hormones, as well as birth defects. This chemical is banned in the European Union but permitted in the United States.

The silica added to make a matte nail polish is relatively non-toxic.

How Can You Find a Non-Toxic Nail Polish?

Even in Europe, there are no completely chemical-free brands of nail polish. In the United States, in the ten years since the initial report, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has persuaded two companies to make safe nail polish, OPI and Sally Hansen. With other brands, the problem is that some companies label their products toxin-free that aren't, and other companies don't label their products as toxin-free but they are.

When the State of California tested nail 12 brands of nail polish for formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalates, they found that:

  • Color Luscious nail lacquer and
  • Zoya professional nail lacquer

claimed to be toxin-free and actually were. On the other hand, the chemists also discovered that:

  • Cali nail polish thinner,
  • Essie Starter Wife 596 nail lacquer,
  • OPI Bithday Babe nail lacquer,
  • and Out the Door Topcoat

didn't claim to be toxin-free but were. Every other brand tested had one, two, or three of the most dangerous known chemicals.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Motghare V, Kumar J, Kamate S, Kushwaha S, Anand R, Gupta N, Gupta B, Singh I. Association Between Harmful Oral Habits and Sign and Symptoms of Temporomandibular Joint Disorders Among Adolescents. J Clin Diagn Res. 2015 Aug. 9(8):ZC45-8. doi: 10.7860/JCDR/2015/12133.6338. Epub 2015 Aug 1. PMID: 26436046.
  • Savage T, Khan A, Loftus BG. Acetone-free nail polish remover pads: toxicity in a 9-month old. Arch Dis Child. 2007 Apr
  • 92(4):371. PMID: 17376952.
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