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Maybelline Color Show nail polish, shown above, bills itself as formaldehyde-, DBP- and toluene-free

When it comes to beauty banes, few products are as noticeably noxious – or, at the very least, apparently artificial – than nail polish.

There’s that inescapable chemical stench, for starters, as well as the implausibly neon, not-found-in-nature range of hues – no beauty buff worth her bathing salts is going to be fooled into believing that colours with cutesy names like “Blueberry” or “Watermelon” contain actual fruit.

Up until very recently (2006, to be precise), the nail care industry was a Wild West frontier of unregulated beauty baddies: Anything to make your polish that much glossier was fair game, really. It was only after a vociferous group of public health advocates in the U.S. began drumming up a grooming groundswell of anti-polish sentiment that mainstream brands began tweaking their formulas to market themselves as “3-Free”.

The three ingredients in question make up an unholy trinity of health-harming hazards, and were memorably branded as the “toxic trio” of substances to avoid.

But what exactly is the Toxic Trio? This may be a refresher for some of us seasoned beauty pros, but it’s nonetheless an extremely pertinent subject to nail, so to speak, given the influx of exotic polish brands entering Singapore’s increasingly exciting and diverse beauty industry. (To give you an idea of the scope we’re talking about, the forthcoming BeautyAsia 2014 trade show says it will be bringing in more than double the number of Korean exhibitors this year – not that we’re casting aspersions on any of the participating brands, of course.)

Your beauty ABCs: The Toxic Trio

Virtual notebooks, at the ready! The Toxic Trio refers to toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and formaldehyde. Yes, formaldehyde, that very same stuff that’s used to kill and pickle creatures in science labs. The embalming fluid, previously splashed into bottles of nail polish as a potent preservative (you don’t say!), is also an honest-to-goodness cancer-causing compound.

The latest National Toxicology Program Report on Carcinogens by the US Department of Health and Human Services includes a pointed addendum to its entry on formaldehyde reaffirming the chemical as one that is definitively “known to be a human carcinogen”. To think we were once literally dipping our fingers and toes into a cesspool of carcinogenic agents. Gulp.

Moving on from a somewhat familiar F-word to a more foreign acronym, DBP or dibutyl phthalate (try pronouncing that to your bemused manicurist!) is an additive that’s referred to in trade-speak as a plasticiser, or a substance that increases the fluidity of a product. In polish, it’s used to boost the gloss and longevity of your manicure.

While DBP may prevent chips and cracks, it also has the entirely undesirable downside of being linked to cancerous growths in lab rats. Even more sinister is its suspected association with birth defects and infertility in women – if you’re preggers, you absolutely must insist on DBP-free products. When you consider how the chemical’s been banned from use in toddler’s toys in the EU since 1999, it’s frankly shocking that it took another seven years of dithering before US regulators deigned to add it to its list of cancer-causing chemicals.

Last but by no means the least lethal is toluene. Quite literally a heady fume, toluene lends paint thinners its characteristic odour, and has been shown to mess with your nervous system and act as a devious developmental toxin. Prior to the health hullabaloo of 2006, toluene was used in some nail polishes as a solvent to suspend pigment particles in the bottle, ensuring the slurry’s smooth consistency … much like how it’s used in industrial-grade paint and gasoline.

Polishing up your defences

Why should any of us care if there’s poison in our polish? After all, aren’t our nails merely layers of dead keratin cells? For the unconvinced, know that your nail is more than the sum of its parts. Fan Wen Qing, head nail technician at SoQ Nails, says that even with the steadiest of hands, some varnish will stray into your system: “No matter how careful you are with your application, a tiny bit of polish will inevitably be absorbed into your bloodstream via the surrounding cuticle and through tiny nicks in your skin.”

Now, between this and our previous reports on lead in lippies and heavy metals in mascara, you might be tempted to thrash your entire beauty cabinet and renounce makeup for life. Don’t. There are proactive steps you can take to take the menace out of your manicure:

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Nars Wind Dancer Nail Polish in Cantaloupe, $30, Nails Inc. Modern Art Collection in Cromwell Road, $22, and Butter London Colour Clash Collection in Cake Hole, $24

Terrific trio and fab five. Many mainstream brands, such as Nails Inc., Butter London, OPI and Sally Hansen, have voluntarily ditched the Toxic Trio from their formulas. To be safe, zero in on products labelled as “3-Free”, or ask your friendly counter staff for advice when in doubt.

Some rather brilliant brands, like Chanel, Dior and Givenchy, have really fought tooth and nail by marketing themselves as “5-Free”. They’ve taken out two additional ingredients which may be of concern to the hyper-vigilant: Formaldehyde resin, a derivative of the carcinogenic compound that can trigger allergies; and camphor, an irritant which can be toxic when ingested in large enough quantities.

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Chanel Le Vernis in Rouge Rubis, $38 and Dior Addict Extreme Vernis Nail Polish in 257 Incognito, $37

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Common sense prevails. Make a conscious effort to avoid chewing your nails, and hold off on the varnish if your cuticles are in bad shape. (By the same token, keep polish out of the hands of kids, who may not be able to stop themselves from licking up the lacquer.)

Instead, consider dialing back on the drama and letting your nails “breathe” every week or so by going out with just a slick of nutritious oil. We like Orly’s Gel Fx Cuticle Oil, $45 for 9ml, a power-packed elixir of vitamins which also imparts a barely there sheen that’s just right for off-duty days.

Don’t let your mask slip. Protect yourself the best you can. Remember those dreadful dog days of summer last year, when the haze threatened to halt all outdoor activities? If you still have a stash of N95 masks squirrelled away somewhere in your first aid kit, consider fishing them out for use when applying polish.

All professional manicurists mask up in the salon – and not only because of the odious state of some of their customers’ feet – so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be as scrupulous when doing your own nails at home.

Knowledge is power. Be a beauty brainiac by doing your research and arming yourself with a comprehensive overview of the “good” and “bad” brands on the market. There are a ton of advocacy groups and sites out there, so it’s really just a click and bookmark away to your virtual beauty manual. We like browsing the Environmental Working Group’s searchable cosmetics database whenever we need an unbiased, blow-by-blow breakdown of a particular product’s ingredients.

Bottom line? Be prudent with your polish purchases, but live a little. Don’t deny yourself the pleasures of, shall we say, a truly killer set of talons. Until science tells us better, an occasional coat of your favourite “3-Free” varnish isn’t going to be the final nail in the cosmetic coffin!

For a comprehensive list of “safe” nail polishes, visit Environmental Working Group.

Maybelline Color Show Nail Polish, available in 40 shades at $6.90 each, is available at selected Watsons, Guardian and Sasa stores. For more information, visit www.maybelline.com.sg.

Nars Wind Dancer Nail Polish in Cantaloupe, $30, is available at all Nars counters. For more information, visit www.narscosmetics.com and follow the brand on Facebook.

Nails Inc. Modern Art Collection in Cromwell Road, $22, and Butter London Colour Clash Collection in Cake Hole, $24, are available at all Sephora stores. For more information, visit www.sephora.com and follow Sephora Singapore on Facebook and Twitter.

Chanel Le Vernis in Rouge Rubis, $38, is available at all Chanel counters. For more information, visit www.chanel.com/en_SG/ and follow the brand on Facebook.

Dior Addict Extreme Vernis Nail Polish in 257 Incognito, $37, is available at all Dior counters. For more information, visit www.dior.com/beauty and follow the brand on Facebook.