We’ve all heard of them by now. The big three: formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (aka DBP). But what exactly are these chemicals and why have they been systematically eliminated from cosmetics?
The cosmetic industry has a rather substantial oversight process to ensure that ingredients used in products are safe for consumers and beauty professionals alike. Many organizations play a role in keeping these products safe for use. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Occupational Safe and Health Association (OSHA), The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and finally the U.S. legal system and its propensity for litigation, all keep the formulations of cosmetic products well in check.
In the nail industry, three ingredients have received more press, spotlight, and controversy than any others — formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). But why? What were these three chemicals used for, why were they eliminated, and what has been done to replace them?
Here's the lineup:
Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)
Where was it used: Most nail polishes, top coats, and base coats.
What it is: A plasticizer used to soften the nail enamel and make it more flexible so nail polish will last longer and not chip.
Why the controversy: Animal testing suggested this chemical may produce abnormal development in babies.
Why eliminated: The European Union banned DBP along with hundreds of other chemicals in 2001. Even though the doses of DBP found in nail polish are many thousand times below dangerous levels, nail manufacturers have removed it in order to distribute throughout Europe.
Replaced with: Other plasticizers have been brought in to substitute DBP’s function.
Where it was used: Most nail polishes, top coats, and base coats.
What it is: A solvent that controls the evaporation rate and smoothness of the final coating.
Why the controversy: Toluene is believed to cause cancer and reproductive problems in extremely high doses and over long-term exposure.
Why eliminated: Toluene is considered safe and still legal to use in nail polish, because the studies have shown the exposure risk from daily salon usage to be negligible to both nail techs and clients. But toluene has attracted the attention of many health organizations such as the California Air Resources Board because it is a suspected air pollutant, so nail manufacturers have removed this chemical to avoid any public concern.
Replaced with: No replacement; manufacturers boost the levels of other solvents to compensate for toluene’s absence.
*Formaldehyde was never used in nail polish, because formaldehyde is a gas and cannot be put into any cosmetic including nail polish. The concern over formaldehyde started because the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI), which is a dictionary that instructs the cosmetic industry on how to name chemicals, misnamed a chemical called methylene glycol (also known as formalin) and incorrectly required manufacturers to call it formaldehyde. Though methylene glycol is made from formaldehyde, they are not similar at all. Their chemical structure and functions are entirely different.
Since formaldehyde gas has been linked with rare cancers of the nasal passage when inhaled in extremely high doses over long periods of time, usually only found in industrial settings, there was concern over the formaldehyde ingredient listed in polishes.
The Nail Manufacturers Council, co-chaired by chemist Doug Schoon, rectified this term with the INCI and now what was once called formaldehyde is correctly listed as methylene glycol.
So in effect, the concern over formaldehyde was non-existent because formaldehyde was never used in polishes; it was methylene glycol all along.
Where was it used: Nail hardeners, not in regular polish.
What it is: A cross-linking agent that stiffens fingernail proteins.
Why the controversy: Had been incorrectly labeled as formaldehyde, which is known to cause nasal cancers when inhaled in extremely large doses over long periods of time.
Why eliminated: Methylene glycol never was eliminated, just incorrectly labeled.
Replaced with: N/A
Tosylamide/Formaldehyde Resin (TSF Resin)
Where it was used: Polishes, top coats, and base coats.
What it is: A polymer that improves polish adhesion and strength.
Why the controversy: Often mistaken for formaldehyde.
Why eliminated: TSF Resin is slowly being phased out due
to public image.
Replaced with: N/A
The concern over formaldehyde has also brought the spotlight on tosylamide/formaldehyde resin (TSF resin). Many people see the “formaldehyde” in TSF resin and think it is a variant of formaldehyde. But TSF resin is a completely different chemical compound that looks and functions differently than formaldehyde.
Contributions by: Doug Schoon, chief scientific advisor, CND; and Paul Bryson, Ph.D., director of research and development, OPI Products.