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Duke Researchers Find Nail Polish Chemical in Women's Bodies

Health + Wellness
Duke Researchers Find Nail Polish Chemical in Women's Bodies

A new study co-authored by researchers at Duke University and Environmental Working Group (EWG) has detected evidence of a common nail polish chemical called triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) in the bodies of every woman who volunteered to paint her nails for the study.

TPHP is listed on the ingredient labels of a wide array of nail polishes now on the market. Photo credit: Environmental Working Group

The results represent compelling evidence that TPHP, a suspected endocrine-disrupting chemical also used in plastics manufacturing and as a fire retardant in foam furniture, enters the human body via nail polish. These results are troubling because a growing body of scientific data from other studies indicates that TPHP causes endocrine disruption, meaning that it interferes with normal hormone functioning. In animal studies, it has caused reproductive and developmental irregularities. (Some studies use the acronym TPP for this chemical).

TPHP is listed on the ingredient labels of a wide array of nail polishes now on the market. Forty-nine percent of more than 3,000 nail polishes and treatments compiled in EWG’s Skin Deep database disclose that they contain TPHP. Even worse, some polishes contain it but don’t disclose it.

The Duke-EWG study, published Oct. 19, in Environment International, tested 10 nail polishes in all for TPHP and found it in eight of them.

Importantly, two of the eight polishes that tested positive for TPHP did not disclose its presence on product labels. The Duke researchers decided not to make public the names of those two polishes or the six others that contained TPHP and disclosed it because the lab tested only 10 samples, not the manufacturers’ entire nail product lines. As well, the Duke team anticipated that some or all the manufacturers might update their product labels to disclose their TPHP use before the study could be published.

The manufacturers likely added TPHP as a plasticizer, to render their polishes more flexible and durable. The concentrations in the eight nail polishes with TPHP ranged from 0.49 percent to 1.68 percent by weight. Clear polishes generally contained more TPHP than colored polishes.

The study found that when women applied nail polish with TPHP directly to their nails, the levels of a biomarker of that chemical in their urine increased sharply. Technically, the researchers tested the women’s urine for a chemical called diphenyl phosphate or DPHP, which is created when the body metabolizes TPHP.

Most studies of TPHP involve investigations of its effects on cells and test animals. A few have associated the chemical with changes in the hormone and reproductive systems of humans. The most recent studies are striking—they suggest that TPHP interacts with a protein central to regulating the body’s metabolism and production of fat cells. Scientists are conducting more investigations to discover whether, in fact, TPHP contributes to weight gain and obesity.

Nail polish manufacturers may have turned to TPHP as a replacement plasticizer for dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, that was added to polish to improve flexibility. This chemical fell out of use in nail polish because highly publicized scientific studies showed that DBP and other phthalates are likely endocrine disruptors and toxic to the reproductive system.

Urine tests have found that Americans are extensively exposed to TPHP, probably because it is a common plasticizer and fire retardant often applied to foam cushioning in furniture. A recent biomonitoring study by Duke scientists who investigated TPHP exposure in adults found significantly higher levels of DPHP in women than in men who were tested in a separate study. These findings suggest that women may absorb more TPHP through personal care products, such as nail polish, that are marketed specifically to women.

Another biomonitoring study conducted last year by Duke and EWG researchers found DPHP, the metabolite of TPHP, in the urine of 95 percent of the adults and 100 percent of the children who participated (Butt 2014). A separate study by scientists from Duke University and the University of North Carolina found DPHP in more than 90 percent of samples collected from pregnant women (Hoffman 2014). An Australian study found DPHP in more than 95 percent of samples tested, and researchers in Asia found TPHP in 86 percent of breast milk samples from Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam (Kim 2014, Van den Eede 2015).

To investigate how TPHP from nail polish was absorbed into the body, study participants collected urine samples before and after they applied a polish that was about 1 percent TPHP by weight. When the participants wore gloves and applied polish to synthetic nails, their urinary levels of the metabolite DPHP did not change appreciably. However, when they applied the polish directly to their own nails, the levels of DPHP in their urine increased sharply.

Normally, most molecules do not permeate nails (Gupchup 1999). The researchers theorized that other polish ingredients such as solvents rendered nails more absorbent. They also suspected that the network of capillaries in the cuticle that surrounds the nail might play a role in carrying the chemical into the body.

Two to six hours after they painted their nails, 24 of the 26 volunteers in the study had slightly elevated levels of DPHP in their urine. Ten to 14 hours after polishing their nails, the DPHP levels in all 26 participants had risen by an average of nearly sevenfold, suggesting that more of the TPHP had entered their bodies and been metabolized into DPHP.

Four volunteers collected urine over 48 hours. For three of the four, their concentrations of DPHP peaked between 10 and 20 hours after painting their nails.

These results indicate that nail polish may be an important contributor to short-term TPHP exposure. For frequent users of nail polish, exposure to TPHP may be a long-term hazard.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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