Almost all solvent-based nail polishes include the ingredient nitrocellulose but what exactly is it and why do we as company who creates a toxin-free nail polishes, still include nitrocellulose in our nail polish? In today’s blog post we want to answer this question as well as address the concerns that nitrocellulose might have and how we address/solve these concerns.
What is Nitrocellulose’s purpose in Nail Polish?
For any solvent based nail polish, nitrocellulose is the most important component, and it is what keeps your nail polish hard on your nails. Nitrocellulose is a film forming polymer which means that it creates a film on top of your nail (once the solvents have evaporated) and it holds all of the components in the nail polish together. Because of this and, because nitrocellulose doesn’t dry too quickly, it is an optimal film forming polymer to use in a nail polish. If a nail polish (or the film former) would dry too quickly the other components underneath the film would not have enough time to dry and could make the nail polish lack in quality in other areas e.g. durability. The reported maximum of nitrocellulose in a nail polish is 22% (in our nail polish it is significantly less).
What exactly is Nitrocellulose?
Nitrocellulose is produced from cellulose (plant fibers) and is derived from cotton fibers which are nitrated to form an ester. It is the main ingredient of gunpowder and most nail polishes.
For gunpowder, the nitrocellulose is made with highly nitrated cellulose i.e. it contains more than approx. 12.5% nitrogen. This makes it dry into a fluffy white substance i.e. guncotton. This form of nitrocellulose is highly flammable and even explosive. For nail polish the nitrocellulose is made with moderately nitrated cellulose i.e. it contains approx.. 10,5% – 12.5% nitrogen. This is also flammable, however less than guncotton, and is also soluble in alcohols and ethers (like e.g. in the solvents used in nail polish) in which case it’s practically inflammable (so no, nitrocellulose in nail polish is not an explosive as some rumors may have you believe).
The “problem” with nitrocellulose
In CodeCheck.info nitrocellulose is classified as harmful (orange). The classification comes from the possible formation of nitrosamines through nitrocellulose which have been classified as carcinogenic.
Note that whilst CodeCheck.info is a great place to get a good understanding of the safety of your cosmetics (we use it too and we as a company always register our products there ourselves), it is also not always 100% perfect in its rating systematic. For example, it does not consider how much of the ingredient is in the product. This means CodeCheck.info will not differentiate an ingredient’s safety whether it contains 100% or only 0.1% of it. CodeCheck.info also does not always differentiate in which products the ingredients are used in. Some ingredients are a significant concern if digested internally but much less or even close to harmless when in something like nail polish (however CodeCheck.info is getting better at this differentiation and we are seeing improvements, but it definitely still isn’t 100% perfect). CodeCheck.info is great to use as a guideline but we also suggest to do some research on the company and the ingredients yourself to truly understand if there is anything to be worried about.
Nitrosamines (in nail polish)
So, what exactly are nitrosamines? They are organic substances which can be found in many things such as foods like fish, meat and cheeses (preserved with nitrates) but also in various cosmetic products and tobacco. They can even be formed from food in the digestive tract during normal metabolic processes. A study has shown that also nail polishes contains nitrosamines in them, and it is assumed that the source of these nitrosamines is nitrocellulose.
The problem with nitrosamines
Nitrosamines have been studied and tested for many years and approx. 90% of these nitrosamines tested have shown to be carcinogenic when given at high dosages across a number of animal species. Due to these findings, nitrosamines have been classified as carcinogenic to humans. When it comes to cosmetics, the products are formulated to eliminate and/or reduce the formation of nitrosamines. If nitrosamines are present in cosmetics, the levels are so low that they do not present a health risk to consumers. According to Cosmetincsinfo.org, The EU Cosmetics Regulation (EC NO.1223/2009), Annex II state that “nitrosamines must not form part of the composition of cosmetic products above trace levels that are technically unavoidable in Good Manufacturing Practices.”
Whilst the amount of nitrosamines in our nail polish are most likely none to very low, (remember that nail polish doesn’t contain nitrosamines in itself. It is assumed that they are produced through nitrocellulose) and we can assume that they do not pose any significant concern to us, we of course also wanted to find a solution on how we could eliminate or reduce the production of nitrosamines. With our nail polish this is the ingredient maltol which has been proven to reduce the production of nitrosamines (and which we include in our nail polish base recipe specifically for this reason). Another fact to consider is that a long shelf life might have an effect on the amount of nitrosamines produced i.e. the longer a nail polish sits on the shelf (or in your drawer) the more nitrosamines it could produce with time. In addition to reducing waste, this is another reason for the continuation of the use of our “smaller” 5ml bottles.
In summary, when it comes to a long-lasting manicure, nitrocellulose is pretty much irreplaceable. Today, almost every solvent based nail polish uses this ingredient as it’s film former.
Whilst nitrosamines have been found in nail polish, there is no evidence or conclusion to show that the nitrosamines in nail polish are more (or less) harmful than other sources of nitrosamines like from food or tobacco. However, since nail polish is not digested internally, it can be assumed to be of less risk. With that in mind, and that the levels of nitrosamines found in EU regulated cosmetics products are so low that they are not likely to be of any health concern, as well as our efforts to minimize the production of nitrosamines (through maltol) we believe that the concerns of nitrosamines in nail polish are not significant. We understand the concerns and of course take them seriously which is why we have also done our best to minimize the production of nitrosamines, but we also can guarantee that we would never create, sell or use a product which we think would pose any significant health risk. Your health and safety are always priority for us.
With this blog post we wanted to give you a better understanding about nitrocellulose and nitrosamines. Whilst we are convinced that there is no significant concern when it comes to nitrosamines, especially in our nail polish, our goal is also not to convince anybody else. Rather we hope to broaden your knowledge scope through which everyone can make their personal choice and conclusion on nitrosamines and on whether or not they want to use our nail polish or nail polish in general.
We have done our best to create the most natural and safe nail polish possible with simultaneously a great quality. Our nail polishes are up to 87% natural and are made with 100% plant-derived solvents. They are also 15 free meaning they don’t include any of the following harmful or animal derived ingredients:
Phthalates (incl. Dibutylphthalate (DBP), Diethylhexyl Phthalate (DEHP)), Toluene (also Methylbenzene), Xylene, Camphor, Formaldehyde, Formaldehyde Resin, Ethyl Tosylamide, Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Triphenyl Phosphate, Colophoneum, Organic Halides (AOX), Parabens, Silicone, Fragrances, Animal Derived Ingredients
Dr Urs Hauri. Nail varnishes / colourants, preservatives, nitrosamines, formaldehyde, phenol, ethyl pyrrolidone, hydroquinones and phthalates
Monice M. Flume. 2016. Safety Assessment of Nitrocellulose and Collodion as Used in Cosmetics
Caroline Thunstedt. 2014. Development of a nail polish with minerals as caring ingredients
Agapakis, Christina. "Gal Science: How Nail Polish Works." The Toast. N.p., 01 Oct. 2014.
Francesca F. Raw Materials in the Production of Nail Polish. http://www.designlife-cycle.com/nail-polish