All About the Big 3

By | February 7, 2013

If you’re a newcomer to the wonderful world of nail polish, there is a lot of jargon to decipher. But a bit of jargon you should stop and pay attention to for a moment is “Big 3”. The Big 3 are three chemicals that have been used in nail polish and nail hardeners for a long time, and are currently in the process of being phased out since they can be dangerous to health. A lot of brands have declared themselves proudly 3 Free, meaning they don’t use formaldehyde, toluene, or dibutyl phthalate (DBP).

But what are these chemicals? What are we risking by using products that aren’t Big 3 free?


Commonly found: Preserving animal tissue, disinfectant, some hair straightening products
Why it’s in nail polish: Very effective nail hardener
Main health concerns: Nose and eye irritation, nasal cancers, leukemia

I don’t know about you, but when I think formaldehyde, I think school science classes. Memories of dead, pale eyes floating in a jar of yellow liquid swim to the front of my mind, and suddenly I’m 12 again, freaking the hell out because I could swear that frog just blinked at me and oh god oh GOD its leg just fell off!!
…I’m okay.

The point is that according to my research, it’s pretty unlikely you will absorb much of it through your skin, unless you actually paint yourself all over with nail hardener. Which seems like a bad idea anyway. However there does seem to be a pretty good indication that opening a bottle of nail hardener could release formaldehyde gas for you to suck into your pink, absorbent lung tissue.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any concrete information about how much formaldehyde gas is actually released from nail products when you use them, since it varies pretty wildly depending on the actual product in question, and many other factors. However, large amounts (like those found in hair salons) can cause headaches, dizziness, watering eyes and difficulty breathing. With the amounts in nail products, it won’t hurt you in the short term, but with sufficient amounts, in the long term it can give you cancer. The US National Toxicology Program listed formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen in 2011, and steps have been taken to limit the amounts allowed in consumer products. While the ordinary nail polish user is unlikely to be affected (unless you have a formaldehyde allergy), salon workers, particularly those who deal with formaldehyde-containing hair products which are heat-activated, can be exposed to dangerous levels.


Commonly found: Paint, paint thinner
Why it’s in nail polish: Solvent
Main health concerns: Intoxication (similar to being drunk), long-term damage to brain and nervous system

Toluene is a solvent, which means it’s used to make sure all the ingredients in a nail polish don’t clump up into chunky bits, and instead make a nice smooth liquid.

While toluene can be absorbed through skin contact, like formaldehyde, the amount of skin that comes into contact with nail polish is pretty small, no matter how clumsy you are. The vapour released when it dries, however, can be easily absorbed through your lungs and nose into the bloodstream and travel throughout your body, including to your brain.

However, the amount you are likely to breathe in when using nail products in a reasonable way (i.e. not huffing them) is pretty low. The official EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) found in 2006 that toluene, as used in nail polish products, does not pose a risk to health.

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

Commonly found: plastics, adhesives, inks
Why it’s in nail polish: makes the polish a bit flexible and less prone to chipping
Main health concerns: possible birth defects, possible hormonal effects

While formaldehyde and toluene aren’t used that many consumer products, DBP on the other hand is absolutely EVERYWHERE. As the Australian Government National Pollutant Inventory points out, dibutyl phthalate is used extensively and is now widespread in the environment. Most people are exposed to low levels of DBP in air, water, and food. Some of the dibutyl phthalate in food is from plastic packaging. Air and water also contains small levels of dibutyl phthalate.

Yikes, right? BUT the NPI also goes on to point out “At these low levels dibutyl phthalate is not expected to cause any harmful effects.”

These probably have DBP in them too
There is some more recent research which has suggested that DBP might act as an endocrine disruptor (i.e. it can mess around with your hormones) – but this research is in its early stages, and there isn’t a lot of concrete information available.


None of these things are great. I wouldn’t put them in my children’s birthday cakes. You shouldn’t drink them. You shouldn’t hold a bottle of polish containing them to your nose and huff it. But are they going to kill you? It’s unlikely. However, if you’re still stressed and want to avoid them anyway, you can chill out, because luckily most major brands are Big 3 free these days.

Cassie is a thirty something Sydneysider, who can be found spouting her endless opinions all over the internet. Her opinions are largely confined to The Reluctant Femme at present, but if you feel like you need a constant stream of it, she can also be found on Twitter (@anwyn).

The Reluctant Femme – Poison? On MY Nails? – Show Your Working
Lab Muffin – Big-3 – Formaldehyde
All Lacquered Up – The Big 3 (toxic chemicals that is)
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry – Formaldehyde Toxicological Profile
Los Angeles Times – A Danger at Your Fingertips?
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – Toluene
National Pollutant Inventory – Dibutyl Phthalate Fact Sheet
Consumer Product Safety Commission – Toxicity Review of DBP
GreenFacts – Dibutyl Phthalate
Science & Environmental Health Network – Phthalate Esters and Endocrine Disruption

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