The Science of Nails

Editor's note: Toluene Controversy: Fair Or Foul?

The inflammatory news report offered no scientific backup, no reports or studies on the effects of toluene, and no comments from polish manufacturers.

QUICK! Turn on Action News. “Is nail polish dangerous to your health?” That’s the question a Los Angeles news broadcast asked it viewers recently. In a 10-second news segment, the news anchor reported on a lawsuit brought by the consumer group As You Sow against nail polish manufacturers who sell nail polish in California. The suit contends that nail polish that contains the solvent toluene may cause birth defects and ought to be labeled with a warning as such. The inflammatory news report offered no scientific backup, no reports or studies on the effects of toluene, and no comments from polish manufacturers. The public relations machine for As You Sow must be working overtime, because the same scary report was featured on another news station last night. Although both features reported on the lawsuit that has been filed, neither newscast bothered to report on whether the lawsuit itself was valid or whether consumers had any real reason to be concerned for their safety.

NAILS has reported the ongoing controversy over whether the level of toluene in nail polish constitutes a real risk to nail technicians, and we have not found any reports or evidence that shows toluene does any harm to nail technicians whose exposure to it is moderate or low. In fact, our report in September 1992 (“How Safe Is Toluene?”) details toluene studies that show low-level exposure is not dangerous. But suddenly, news reporters have latched on to toluene, fashion magazines warn their readers to find alternatives, and polish makers who have removed it use that information in all their marketing. It would be understandable if nail technicians and nail polish consumers alike simply opted against using any polish with toluene because solid, accurate information was so difficult to obtain.

The danger to our industry of this kind of report is that toluene may not survive the taint of controversy and nail manufactures, who have both their customers’ and their businesses’ health in mind, suffer from their association with the chemical. Most nail polish manufacturers and major marketers tell us that polish without toluene simply does not work as well (“If there was a reliable substitute, why wouldn’t we all just change?” asks a leading marketer). The principle of innocent until proven guilty applies to criminals, not products. Nail technicians must respond to this issue without fear, but with facts.

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