Can Manicures Give You Cancer? Everything You Need to Know About the Ingredients in Your Nail Polish

Getting a manicure is a great way to treat yourself, but recent studies show it actually might not be good for your health.

By Madeline Merinuk
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Avoid These ‘Toxic Trio’ Nail Polish Ingredients (1:39)

As strange as it sounds, I always feel more productive when my nails are done. Somehow, having a few coats of polish on makes me feel like I have my life together — like the manicure has special productivity-inducing powers. Dramatics aside, I always wondered what the ingredients in my nail polish were, but never thought to check. Sure, you can buy natural nail polish for your collection at home, but what sort of chemicals are in the products that manicurists use at the salon? Recent studies show that there may be a link between cancer and manicures, but how worried do you really need to be?

According to the CDC, if you don't practice good nail hygiene, you could contract some infections, like pinworm. Since nail hygiene is important, you want to ensure that the nail salon you're going to is using products that don't have harsh chemicals or use practices that could cause certain diseases, some as serious as cancer. The Dr. Oz Show Investigation Squad member Tia Brown chipped away (pun intended) at this manicure investigation, and we have all of the answers about manicure safety that you need to know.

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The Chemicals You're Inhaling in Nail Salons Aren't Good For You

Ever wonder why your manicurist has to wear a mask, but you don't? According to Brown, people who work in nail salons are exposed to harsh chemicals on average 52.5 hours a week, and a small study done in Colorado found that people who work in nail salons have 100 times higher of a lifetime cancer risk than people who don't. 

Why is this? Many products used at nail salons have strong fumes that are caused by harsh chemicals, and those chemicals are transferred into the air you're breathing when you sit in the salon chair. Some of these chemicals include formaldehyde, which according to Brown, could be carcinogenic depending on exposure time. You're breathing in these fumes the second you step into a nail salon, but Brown says there is a silver lining. If the nail salon has proper ventilation, your exposure to these chemicals can be reduced by 50 percent, so ask for a technician to open a door or window, or make sure you're going a salon that has ventilated tables. 

"The Toxic Trio" of Nail Polish Chemicals, According to Dr. Oz

Most people have no idea what the ingredients in their nail polish are, and it makes sense — nail polish bottles rarely have ingredients on them. Dr. Oz and Brown both broke down all of the potentially harmful chemicals that are in most nail polishes that you'll want to avoid in the future. 

Formaldehyde: This is the ingredient in the nail polish that is the most dangerous. Formaldehyde makes your nails hard so they don't chip, but as previously mentioned, formaldehyde is a carcinogen, which has been linked to nasal and lung cancers by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. 

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP): This chemical is banned in Europe, but not the US. According to the Organic Consumers Association, DBP acts as a binder in your nail polish, which keeps the polish on your nails for a longer period of time. However, it has also been linked to causing cancer in lab-tested animals, and even other long-term fertility problems in newborn boys.

Toluene: This third chemical, though it keeps your polish looking smooth and even, is highly toxic. According to Brown, this same chemical is emitted from cigarette and gasoline fumes and is one of the chemicals that enforces manicurists to wear masks while working. 

We're not saying that you have to give up your self-care time at the nail salon, but there are some ways you can decrease the health risks that are typically presented when you get a manicure.

You can bring your own polish to your salon, so you know that the polish that's going on your nails is toxin-free and safer for you than the ones they already have in the salon for you. Also if you're a big fan of acrylic nails or gel manicures, Brown suggests switching to a dip powder manicure. Powder manicures are just as long-lasting as gel and acrylics, and they are healthier for your nails. Gel manicures expose your nails to harmful UV light, which is used to make your nails shiny and long-lasting, and the drill that is used to put acrylic nails can severely damage your nails.

With powder manicures, you are taking all of those harmful factors out of the equation, and you get the same results. There are ways to keep your nail hygiene in tip-top shape without having to increase your risk of health problems as serious as cancer, you just have to know what to look for. 

Related:

The S.O.S. Guide to Healthy Nails

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The Ultimate Drugstore Makeup Tips You Need

Article written by Madeline Merinuk