Is It Safe to Paint Your Toddler's Nails?

toddler girl's painted toes

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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, it's worth learning about nail polish safety. Many polish brands contain chemicals that may affect your decision.

Toxins Found in Many Nail Polishes

That pretty bottle of nail polish may be a mix of chemicals that some researchers say are potentially harmful and toxic. The amount at which they pose a concern, however, is debated. There are four major toxins found in some brands of nail polish.

  • Toluene 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 damage to the liver and kidneys as well as cause nervous system problems and upper respiratory issues.
  • Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) can disrupt the endocrine system and is used to make plastics and also as a fire retardant. TPHP is found in many of today's top brands of nail polish. In 2015, a study conducted by researchers at Duke University and Environmental Working Group found a sharp increase in TPHP levels in the urine of 26 women who were tested.
  • Formaldehyde is commonly used in building materials and many household products. It acts as a hardener to prevent nail polish from chipping. Long-term exposure can cause respiratory problems and may increase the risk of certain types of cancer. A study from 2015 found that formaldehyde exposure in pregnant women is linked to spontaneous abortion, congenital malformations, and premature birth.
  • Phthalates are used in nail polish and other personal care products to provide lubrication and carry fragrances. Phthalates are known weak endocrine disruptors and androgen blocking chemicals. Some research has found associations between prenatal and childhood phthalate exposure and developmental delays and allergic diseases.

Is an Occasional Polish Really Dangerous?

There is not enough evidence to support a direct link between nail polish use and cancer, respiratory disease, or other health problems. Still, some researchers warn of potential risk of nail polish use.

It's also worth noting that toddlers tend to put their fingers (and toes) in their mouths—and there's not a whole lot you can do to stop them from these behaviors. Since ingestion is possible, some parents may prefer to refrain from using chemical nail polishes on toddlers. Even nail polishes labeled "nontoxic" may contain toxic ingredients.

To protect your child from exposure to toxins and chemical fumes from nail polish, use safer polishes and apply them at home. Avoid nail salons with poor ventilation.

Safe Polish Options

Amid growing concern from parents, some companies have developed safer polish options for little fingers and toes. Brands like Hopscotch Kids and Piggy Paint provide water-based nail polishes and polish removers that are free of dangerous chemicals.

You can also 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).

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Young AS, Allen JG, Kim UJ, et al. Phthalate and organophosphate plasticizers in nail polish: Evaluation of labels and ingredientsEnviron Sci Technol. 2018;52(21):12841-12850. doi:10.1021/acs.est.8b04495

  2. United States Department of Labor. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Toluene.

  3. Mendelsohn E, Hagopian A, Hoffman K, et al. Nail polish as a source of exposure to triphenyl phosphate. Environ Int. 2016;86:45-51. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2015.10.005

  4. Swenberg JA, Moeller BC, Lu K, Rager JE, Fry RC, Starr TB. Formaldehyde carcinogenicity research: 30 years and counting for mode of action, epidemiology, and cancer risk assessmentToxicol Pathol. 2013;41(2):181-189. doi:10.1177/0192623312466459

  5. Braun JM, Sathyanarayana S, Hauser R. Phthalate exposure and children's health. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2013;25(2):247-54. doi:10.1097/MOP.0b013e32835e1eb6

Additional Reading

By Maureen Ryan
Maureen Ryan is a freelance writer, editor, and teaching consultant specializing in health, parenting, and education.