Whether it’s by ditching plastic or going organic, there are many ways we’ve tried to go non-toxic over the years. And if you’ve brought that same mentality into your mani-pedi routine, then you’ve likely used the bottles labeled “3-free,” “7-free,” or “13-free.” But if the latest study will show us anything, it’s that we should be a little more wary of the non-toxic marketing claims we’re seeing around us.
The latest study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, proves that those claims you see on labels may not mean what you think they do—and those claims vary from brand to brand.
“It’s sort of like playing a game of chemical Whac-A-Mole, where one toxic chemical is removed and you end up chasing down the next potentially harmful chemical substituted in,” Anna Young, a doctoral student at Harvard University who co-authored the study, tells Time.com.
Chemicals in nail polish (among many other cosmetics) have regularly been linked to hormonal irregularities, nervous system troubles, cancers, and even infertility. They’ve been noted by previous researchers and other studies for having negative effects—especially when used on a regular basis—and major brands have started to take steps to reduce their footprint.
From that, the “3-free” claim began. With this label, brands noted that their nail polish did not contain three toxic ingredients: dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde.
But from that moment in history, the claims have only grown. Now, multiple brands are claiming to be “5-free,” “6-free,” “8-free,” “10-free,” and even “13-free.” What does it mean? Not many seem to know.
As Young says in her study, with the marketing claims and inconsistent labels, it’s unclear which of the non-toxic claims is best. While brands have eliminated some chemicals (and are thus able to say that they are “X-free”), they have added other, potentially equally toxic, chemicals in their place. That’s no win-win.
Throughout the study, in which Young and her colleagues tested 40 nail polishes from 12 brands, they found that there was no consistent rule for which five chemicals should encompass the “10-free” label. Some brands had one set of ten, another brand had a different definition. And in many cases, when one chemical was removed from the ingredients list, another was added. The toxicity levels? Fairly unchanged.
As Young notes, though the occasional manicure won’t harm you, the research can be especially troubling to salon workers who are surrounded by and inhale the toxic fumes on a regular basis. But above that, the true that exists is one for improved transparency on ingredients lists. Take a look at what really makes up the nail polish you’ve chosen.
Is it still potentially hazardous? Be aware. It’ll help in making much more informed choices the next time you’re heading for a mani.