Organic Consumers Association

Campaigning for health, justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy
  • Purple flower
  • asian farmer
  • veggie market
  • african wheat farmer
  • woman harvesting
  • allium
  • 3 lambs
  • apple
  • apple
  • apple vendor
  • apples in basket
  • apples on tree

Consumer Alert: Beware of Toxic Chemical DBP in Nail Polish

Grist Magazine's Daily Grist

Another Nail Polish in the Coffin
Many nail polishes contain shady ingredients

A question for all you women, girls, drag queens, trannies, metrosexuals, goths, punks, and so on: have you ever wondered what's in that nail polish? If you're in the U.S., one ingredient is likely the nefarious dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, which has been linked to cancer in lab critters and to underdeveloped genitals and other fertility problems in newborn boys. The FDA doesn't require that cosmetics be tested for long-term effects before coming to market; nor is it requiring companies stop using DBP. Activist groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics have stepped into the breach, trying to persuade manufacturers to sign a "Compact for Safe Cosmetics" pledging to replace suspect chemicals with safer alternatives. Seems reasonable, but few big-name companies in the U.S. have signed on. And you thought the beauty myth was poisonous.

Straight to the source: Arizona Daily Star, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, LaMont Jones, 04 Aug 2006 ________________________________________________________________

Nailing down polish risk
By LaMont Jones
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tucson, Arizona | 08.04.2006 http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/140362

Are beautifully polished nails a safety risk?

That's a quandary facing a growing number of cosmetics companies, salons and customers as health and environmental advocates step up their attack against a controversial ingredient contained in most nail polishes - including some very popular brands.

The chemical dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, acts as a binder to improve the lasting power of nail lacquer. But it's also been linked to cancer in lab animals, and underdeveloped genitals and other long-term fertility problems in newborn boys.

And while many customers, nail technicians and salespersons aren't aware of the debate - and are just as likely to have never heard of DBP - environmental groups have mobilized to get DBP removed from all nail polishes sold in the United States.

Estee Lauder is among some major brands that have done that. But many others have not, including salon favorite OPI, cult fave Essie and ubiquitous bargain brand Sally Hansen. In 2004, OPI was forced to remove DBP from its polishes sold in Europe after the European Union banned it along with many other personal-care product ingredients known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutations or birth defects.

But the ban didn't necessarily mean that a substance had been proven harmful. The Phthalate Esters Panel of the American Chemistry Council and other proponents of phthalate use noted that risk assessments conducted by the European Union under the supervision of the European Chemicals Bureau expressed no health concerns about how DBP was used in cosmetics.

OPI has no plans to remove DBP from polishes sold in the United States, saying that the level is so low that it poses no health risk. Most exposure to the chemical comes from inhaling it rather than absorbing it through nail and cuticle contact.

Manufacturers of nail lacquers sold at retail in the United States are required to list ingredients on the packaging. Polishes formulated for salon use, however, are exempt. "There's lots of science showing reproductive toxicity," said Stacy Malkan, spokeswoman for The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics watchdog coalition, about DBP.

"We're concerned about workers who use the products all day long and especially about pregnant women and developing babies and kids, the most vulnerable. (Dibutyl) phthalates affect the male reproductive system, which can lead to lowered sperm count, sperm damage and birth defects.

"The size of the person and the timing of the exposure are as important as the amount of exposure," Malkan added.

Proponents of DBP use in cosmetics are correct that nail polishes that include the ingredient have not been conclusively proven to be toxic to humans. Nor, however, has it been proven that DBP in polishes does not cause harmful long-term effects.

And although nail polishes must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, laws do not require cosmetics companies to prove that products are safe before putting them on the market.

Thus, when it comes to dibutyl phthalates in nail polish, "it's not possible for the public to know the levels and whether they are low or high enough to be harmful," said Lauren Sucher, spokeswoman for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and watchdog organization in Washington, D.C. "We know the names of the ingredients, but we don't know the amounts of the ingredients in the recipe," she said.

Often when products are tested before being put on the market, Sucher pointed out, they are checked only for immediate and acute reactions - not long-term health problems such as cancer risk or reproductive toxicity.

Dibutyl phthalates were removed from Creative Nail Designs formulas last year as the controversy continued to heat up. Doug Schoon, vice president of science and technology at the company based in Vista, Calif., said the move was forced by a reactionary European Union.

"This is all just a political snafu that this poor ingredient has been caught in," said Schoon. "This has turned into a legal and regulatory fiasco that has nothing to do with ingredient safety."

He added that "most people don't know or care" about DBP.

People come in contact with DBP and other phthalates in many forms, from children's plastic toys to vinyl shower curtains. A study published in September 2000 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the presence of dibutyl phthalates in every person tested - and the highest levels in women ages 20 to 40. The CDC suggested that cosmetics might be a source.

Health and environmental groups began to search product labels and found that nail polish was the only product that listed phthalates as an ingredient. The Environmental Working Group published the findings in a November 2000 report titled "Beauty Secrets."

In 2002, along with Women's Voices for the Earth and Health Care Without Harm, EWG issued another report titled "Not Too Pretty" that included other products that contained phthalates. More than 70 percent of products tested at an independent lab contained at least one type of phthalate, from face creams, lotions and shampoos to hair sprays, deodorants and fragrances.

In the wake of the reports, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has been trying to persuade nail polish manufacturers to remove dibutyl phthalates. The Campaign's "Compact for Safe Cosmetics" encourages cosmetics companies to sign a pledge "to not use chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation or birth defects in their products and to implement substitution plans that replace hazardous materials with safer alternatives in every market they serve."

More than 300 companies - including The Body Shop, Kiss My Face and California Baby - had signed the covenant by May 15. The Campaign is pressuring industry giants Unilever, Avon, L'Oreal, Revlon, Estee Lauder and Procter & Gamble to sign on, too.

Get Local

Find News and Action for your state: