J.Crew Nail Polish Ad Begs The Question: Is It Safe To Paint Kids' Nails?

Pundits' tongues were wagging last week over the now famous J.Crew ad that showed the company's creative director painting her young son's toenails pink. Though the resulting firestorm focused primarily on whether the boy's rosy lacquer might lead to gender confusion, the more salient question is, is painting children's nails even safe?

"I don't think there have been any definitive studies that show that nail polish alone is enough to cause any harm," said Dr. Maja Castillo, a pediatrician with Tribeca Pediatrics in New York City. "But I think that the risks outweigh any potential 'benefits'."

Indeed, the three major toxins of concern are toluene, dibutyl phthalate and formaldehyde, which are found in many nail polish formulas.

"We call them the toxic trio," said Nneka Leiba, a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit and advocacy organization that deals with environmental issues.

Toluene is a solvent that keeps nail polish color from separating and helps give it a smooth finish. But Leiba said it is also associated with neurodevelopmental issues, i.e., anything affecting cognitive function. And Dr. Victoria Riese, a pediatrician with Global Pediatrics in New York City, said it can cause headaches and upper respiratory tract issues.

Dibutyl Phthalate has been associated with some genital underdevelopment as well as impaired thyroid function, which is a particular concern in teenagers and children who are still growing. And though the long-term effects of formaldehyde are still being researched, studies have linked it with cancer, which is why the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies it as a human carcinogen.

Of course, the potential exposure from nail polish is relatively small and Riese said that for kids who are getting their nails painted, say, once a month, it is not clinically significant.

But there is at least one thing for parents to consider when weighing whether or not to condone nail polish -- the fact that kids often suck or nibble on their fingers.

"I have a three-and-a-half year old daughter," Dr. Castillo said, "And whenever I put nail polish on her, she's pretty much chewed it all off by the next day. Most of it goes into the stomach."

Which is why she recommended considering brands like Piggy Paints, which claims to make polishes that are non-toxic.

Leiba said that many mainstream nail polish brands have also revamped their formulas to eliminate the worst ingredients, health-wise. She said to look for polishes that bill themselves as chemical-free, while also closely studying the ingredient list.