Painting Toddlers' Nails

Facts and safety tips about painting little ones' fingers and toes

Toddler painting nails
Nail polish on little hands is cute, but not always safe.. Camille Tokerud/Getty Images

Depending on whom you speak with, painting your toddler girl's fingers and toes is a sweet and happy indulgence that lets moms and daughters bond or an inappropriate practice that's on par with the creepy things you witness on Toddlers and Tiaras.

Based on an unscientific observation of the many pink fingernails on display in my local playground, most parents seem to sit on the side of "harmless fun." You might want to rethink that assumption, though -- not because painting a child's nails robs her of any childhood sweetness, but because using the wrong nail polish might actually be harmful to children.

The Ugly Side of Pretty Paint

Unfortunately, that Perfectly Pink bottle of polish may be a mix of chemicals that some researchers say are toxic and not appropriate for use on humans.

There are three major toxins in some brands of nail polish that raise the greatest concern:

  • 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 worldwide. OPI, one of the most common polishes used in nail salons, has also reformulated its products and pledges not to use any of the trio of toxins in its products.
  • Formaldehyde is used in a wide variety of building products as well as working as a nail hardener to ensure your mani-pedi 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?

It seems everything is at least a little bad for you in excess.

But, assuming your child isn't sniffing the bottle of polish throughout the day, you might feel confident indulging her in a simple coat of polish once in a 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, though, that toddlers often put those 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 moms 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.

More options for a concerned mom with a stylish tot

There has been enough debate and scandal about chemicals in cosmetics to pressure manufacturers like OPI and Johnson and Johnson to revamp their ingredient.

There has also been enough concern among moms to inspire entrepreneurs to fill the need for a safe option for little fingers and toes. Thus, brands like Hopscotchkids and Piggy Paint have come along to provide water-based 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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