Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thinking beyond pink

When I was browsing the web for spring dresses, I saw this page in Jenna's Picks. Commercial imagery like this, showing such intimate and unhurried moments between mother and child invoke a wistful response in me. But it doesn't quite manipulate motivate me to purchase the items because I know my life will not be like that if I purchase the stuff in the picture.
I digress. This is actually a post about pink nail polish.

I initially cringed because she is shown applying carcinogens and endocrine disruptors on her child. I know that this is commonplace in our society, but it doesn't make it any less harmful.

My second thought was, "Wow, that boy has chutzpah! He admitted that pink is his favorite color and agreed to model pink nail polish on the internet to further his mother's career." (I do hope his mother asked for and received his permission.)

In Color: A Natural History of the Palette, Victoria Finlay wrote that, a century ago, people used to dress their boy children in pink and their girl children in light blue. Somehow, the color association was reversed in the middle of the twentieth century. But I worried that the boy's school mates might not have such a long view of history.

Sure enough, the blogosphere lit up with the "controversy" over the pink nail polish. E.g. this superficial piece quoting these luminaries.

Erin R. Brown writing on the website of the Culture and Media Institute -- whose mission is to uphold traditional values -- says the spread “features blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children.” She adds that “Jenna's indulgence (or encouragement) could make life hard for the boy in the future.”

“This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity -- homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such ‘psychological sterilization’ [my word choice] is not known,” Psychiatrist Keith Ablow writes on

I think they are missing the point here.

The boy's manhood is more threatened by the high level of phthalate in the nail polish. Phthalate is a common ingredient in nail polish and an oestrogenic compound (a chemical that mimics estrogen) that can be absorbed through the skin or inhalation. Anything that mimics a hormone is an endocrine disruptor. See the NRDC explanation. Or read the NIH explanation.

Boys with high environmental exposures to endocrine disruptors experience delayed onset of puberty. Males with higher levels of endocrine disruptors in their bloodstream also have lower sperm counts.

In girls, phthalate exposure leads to earlier onset of puberty. It is also suspected of increasing the risk of breast cancer and implicated in many other disorders of the reproductive system.

This is how we know that child obesity is not alone responsible for early onset of puberty. If it were, then boys, as well as girls, would also be experiencing earlier puberty. But they are not.

Nail polish is more than just phthalates (up to 10% by weight). It's main ingredient is a carrier solvent--typically toluene--which is a carcinogen and neurotoxin. Actually, there are a whole bunch of dangerous chemicals in nail polish.

Look at the nail polish ratings at the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. EWG gives the ingredient list and safety rating of 584 nail polishes. Most get a moderate to high hazard rating. There are no safe mass-market nail polishes.

If you look at the bottle in the picture carefully, you can see the Essie label. A search for Essie nail polishes at the cosmetics database shows that all of the Essie polishes are rated 7 (out of 10) or high hazard. I looked at the Essie color chart and guess that this pink is similar to Bachelorette Bash, which is more hazardous than 86% of the nail polishes in their database. Read the ingredient list and follow the links to educate yourself about any of the chemicals unfamiliar to you.

Ablow, a psychiatrist and therefore, a medical doctor, should have been aware of the health hazards posed by nail polish. So why is he harping on the increased risk that this boy will need psychotherapy instead of his increased risk of sterility and cancer?

We can't remove every carcinogen, toxin and endocrine disruptor from our homes. We need some plastics. But we don't need to thoughtlessly expose ourselves and our children to recreational chemicals like nail polish.

This has serious national health consequences as we grapple with climbing health care costs associated with the growth of cancer rates in children, treatment for infertility and complications of fertility treatment (multiple births and increased incidence of cancer).

If we are to have any hope of taming the health care beast that is eating our economy, we have to quit doing stupid stuff.


  1. Marie-Chrisitne03:32

    Quite right! Give the boy pink sandals instead.
    Actually, I thought it was a girl, had to enlarge the picture. She had the striped t-shirt, the glasses, everything like me when I was that age.. except for the nail polish :-).

  2. Actually, I'm not sure the obesity/early puberty relationship would work like that. Adipose tissue modifies estrogen signaling extensively, I think it might modify androgen signaling significantly less so. In which case, there would be no a priori reason to assume that obesity would lead to earlier puberty in boys.

  3. Have you heard of Scotch polish? They claim to be non-toxic--do you have any opinions on them?

  4. @Katy
    EWG has a page about Scotch polish and they rate it the safest nail polish on the market.

    But, I have to wonder why anyone really needs nail polish.

  5. @badmomgoodmom
    Thanks for the link. That is really interesting. I'm certain no one needs nail polish. I appreciate the question, though. It certainly makes me think.

  6. @Becca

    Thanks for pointing out that, while estrogen is stored in fat,
    testosterone is not. In fact, testosterone tends to reduce fat
    reserves. So obesity in boys does not cause earlier puberty.

  7. I haven't decided what I think of pthalates. They are pretty hard to avoid- but since I don't wear nail polish (never have, really), at least I'm not getting them there. Over at Mom-101, there was a post on the things that working moms don't do, and Liz invited us all to post our lists. I was amazed how few of us said we don't get manicures and pedicures, and how some people actually seemed shocked that we wouldn't. I guess I forget what a different world science is to some other professions....

  8. I had no idea nail polish had such toxicity. I've never cared for it myself (brief flirtation with it as a young girl, but not since puberty). Partly too lazy, but also don't like the "suffocated" feeling of my nails.

  9. Thank you for keeping it real! I hate that people get so worked up over silly stuff and miss actual dangers.

  10. I've always though nail polish was suspect. That hideous smell can't be good for anyone. In general, I try to avoid plastic-y, chemical odors that make me want to open all the windows, turn on all the fans, and run for the hills.

    I was asked to get a pedicure for a special event with a friend recently, so I did. It was nice, and my feet do look great and feel smooth, but it is not something I wish to do very often, and clearly there are some potential risks.

  11. Since this picture caused such a media brou-ha-ha, I was surprised by your well-informed and fresh (to me) take on the subject. Nowadays, in many circles, a woman is considered less than well-groomed without nail polish. So never having never liked nail polish and the statement it makes, "I don't do anything w my hands", I was somewhat relieved that it could be so toxic. Now I have an excuse.

    As to boys and pink: Well, first of all, I thought it was a girl in the picture and secondly, we have family photos of my father and uncle in skirts with Buster Brown haircuts when they were small boys. There are also baby clothes trimmed in pink which were saved. Long hair, skirts and pink were normal in 1915. Not only that, but skirts made a cloth diaper change, in a pre-plastic era a lot easier.I take the historical view on this matter. Additionally, I would like to note that preppy guys have always worn pink shirts.

    I think you are entirely right that this picture should have caused a brou-ha-ha for an entirely different set of reasons! Thank you for educating your readers on the subject of nail polish.

  12. Heh. My initial response to the pic was actually the same as yours - I cringe every time I see a young child (male or female) dressed up in tons of makeup. Nail polish? I've done it, (although it's been a few years), but I sure wouldn't do it to a child.


Comments are open for recent posts, but require moderation for posts older than 14 days.