Is It Safe to Paint Your Toddler's Nails?

toddler girl's painted toes

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For most parents, painting a toddler's fingernails and toenails seems like harmless fun; some salons even offer manicures and pedicures for children. And the idea often delights young children who love bright colors or who want new ways to express themselves (or feel a bit more grown up). Before you paint your child's nails, though, it's worth learning a bit more about nail polish safety. Many brands contain chemicals that may affect your decision.

Toxins Found in Many Nail Polishes

Unfortunately, that pretty bottle of nail polish may be a mix of chemicals that some researchers say are toxic and not appropriate for use on humans, let alone children. That amount at which they pose a concern, however, is debated.

There are three major toxins in some brands of nail polish that get the most attention:

  • Toluene is a chemical that is also used in paint thinner, artificial fragrances, cleaning solutions, and other household products. Prolonged and repeated exposure to toluene (including at work or chronically inhaling it on purpose) has been shown to cause nervous system problems and upper respiratory issues.
  • Dibutyl phthalate is known as a "reproductive toxin" because it has been linked to birth defects and developmental problems in animal lab tests. Use of dibutyl phthalate in cosmetics has been banned in Europe since 2003 and some companies, such as Johnson and Johnson, have voluntarily stopped using it in cosmetics around the world. OPI, one of the most common brands of polish used in nail salons, has also reformulated its products and has pledged not to use any of the toxins mentioned here in its products.
  • Formaldehyde is used in a wide variety of building products and is used as a hardener to ensure that your nail polish doesn't chip. Long-term exposure can cause respiratory problems and may increase your risk of certain types of cancer.

Is an Occasional Polish Really Dangerous?

While it's true that no studies show a link between nail polish use and cancer, respiratory disease, or other health problems, it's also true that toddlers often put their pretty fingers (and toes) in their mouths. Try as you may, it's likely that you won't be able to stop that kind of behavior completely.

Because no one has ever studied whether that type of exposure is totally harmless, some experts and parents think refraining from using chemical nail polishes on toddlers is the only way to go.

To further protect your child from nail polish poisoning, experts recommend not taking your child to a nail salon unless there is excellent ventilation and no risk of overexposure to chemical fumes.

Safe Polish Options

Regardless of what research shows (or doesn't), there has been enough attention paid to this topic to pressure several manufacturers to revamp their ingredients. There has also been enough concern among parents to inspire entrepreneurs to fill the need for a safe polish option for little fingers and toes.

Brands like Hopscotch Kids and Piggy Paint have come along to provide water-based nail polishes and polish removers that are free of dangerous chemicals.

If you're looking at other brands of polish, you can check the Environmental Working Group's nail polish directory to see the safety rating for specific products. Each one is ranked on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 being the safest).

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