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Almost 70% Gel Nail Polishes Detected with EU-banned Carcinogens Be Mindful of Health Risks of Convenient Gel Nail Manicures

  • 2022.12.15

Beautifully manicured hands not only leave a neat impression but are an essential routine for many beauty enthusiasts. While acrylic gel manicures done at professional salons are popular, soak-off gel (also known as “soft gel”) nail polish products have become increasingly favoured in recent years as they can be used both at nail salons and in the comfort of one’s home with the same professional effect. The Consumer Council tested 25 models of “soak off gel” nail polish products available on the market. Almost 70% (17 models) were detected with one or more carcinogens which have been banned by the European Union (EU), including benzene, formaldehyde and PAHs. The results of the relevant models have been passed to the Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) for follow-up.

Gel nail polish is usually composed of chemical substances that only hardens via a curing process known as “photo-initiated polymerisation” under ultraviolet (UV) light, making it more durable than regular nail polish. Besides, it allows more versatility as patterns can be drawn on the nails before hardening. Despite the convenience and appealing outcome, these gel manicures may pose certain health risks, in terms of both the harmful substances within the nail polish products, and also the damage from misuse or long-term exposure to UV lamps. The Council reminds consumers to select products that contain no or less harmful substances and to use such products in well-ventilated spaces. At the same time, manufacturers are urged to minimise the levels of toxic substances in their products to safeguard the health of consumers.

Sourced from various major retail outlets, the price of the 25 tested models ranged from $88 to $238 per bottle, a difference of almost 2 times. 8 models were not detected with any of the tested EU-banned carcinogens, of which 5 models received the highest overall rating 5 points. The 2 most expensive models ($238 each) and the cheapest model ($88) were all amongst the best-performing models, reflecting that good quality products are available across different price ranges.

The tests were conducted with reference to the EU Cosmetics Directive, including a number of harmful substances commonly found in nail polish, including formaldehyde, 3 types of organic solvents, namely benzene, toluene and xylene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), N-Nitrosodiethanolamine (NDELA), and phthalates. While none of the samples were found to contain NDELA and phthalates, other harmful substances were detected. The product labelling information was also examined.

CMR Substances Classified by the European Commission

According to the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of Substances and Mixtures (CLP) Regulation (EC) of the EU, “CMR substances” are chemicals classified as carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic for reproduction. According to the Cosmetic Directive, CMR substances shall not be used as raw materials in the production of any cosmetic products. In this study, formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, NDELA and certain members of PAHs and phthalates were classified as CMR substances.

Organic Solvents: EU-banned Carcinogenic Benzene Detected in 1 Model
Toxic for Reproduction Solvent Found in All Models but Within Limit

Solvents are used in nail polish to dissolve and allow the mixing of ingredients together, which will usually evaporate as the nail polish dries. The Council’s test focused on benzene, toluene and xylene, which are 3 organic solvents commonly found in nail polish.

Benzene is classified as a carcinogenic Category 1A and mutagenic Category 1B substance under the CLP Regulation, and its intentional use in cosmetics is prohibited by both the EU Cosmetics Directive and the Mainland’s Safety and Technical Standards for Cosmetics. While short term health impacts include headaches, dizziness and rapid heartbeat, on the long run it could increase the risk of cancer and damage the nervous and immune systems. In the test, 1 model was detected with 0.26mg/kg of benzene. Despite the low detected amount, the Council recommends consumers to avoid using products containing benzene as it is a known carcinogen for humans.

All samples were also found with toluene, a toxic for reproduction Category 2 substance. The detected amounts ranged from 1.6mg/kg to 47mg/kg, which complied with the EU Cosmetics Directive’s upper limit (250,000mg/kg) set for toluene applicable only to nail polish. Toluene could irritate the eyes, respiratory tract and skin and cause headaches and muscle fatigue upon short-term exposure, while it could pose risks to the liver, nervous system and developing foetuses in the long term. In particular, as toluene could pose greater health risks to children and foetuses in the developmental stage, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should refrain from using products with toluene.

Lastly, xylene was detected in close to half of the tested models (12 models), at levels ranging from 0.99mg/kg to 120mg/kg. The CLP Regulation classifies xylene as an acute toxic Category 4 substance, yet no concentration limit has been set by the Cosmetics Directive.

Carcinogenic Formaldehyde Detected in 3 Models

Formaldehyde is commonly used as a preservative and antimicrobial agent in cosmetics, while it is also often added to nail polish due to its unique property of binding with the natural keratin in nails, thus hardening the nails for easier manicure work. However, the use of formaldehyde in cosmetics products has been prohibited by the Cosmetic Directive since 2019, as it is classified as carcinogenic Category 1B, mutagenic Category 2, acute toxic Category 3, and skin sensitising Category 1. Besides, the EU has also mandated that products which contain formaldehyde releasing agents at total concentration of 0.001% (10mg/kg) or more must be labelled with the warning “releases formaldehyde”.

In the Council’s test, 3 models were detected with free formaldehyde at levels from 0.006% to 0.010%, though the levels still complied with the Mainland’s Safety and Technical Standards for Cosmetics (2015), which set out a limit of not more than 0.2% total free formaldehyde content in cosmetics while its usage in sprays is prohibited.

Over Half the Models Detected with EU-banned PAHs

PAHs are harmful contaminants commonly found in plastics and organic solvents. Out of the over 100 known types of PAHs, many are confirmed or potential carcinogens. In the test, 6 types of PAHS were found in 16 samples, namely anthracene, benzo[a]anthracene, naphthalene, acenaphthylene, fluorene, and phenanthrene. Of these, 3 are prohibited for use in cosmetics by the EU’s Cosmetics Directive, including anthracene and benzo[a]anthracene, both carcinogenic Category 1B, and naphthalene, a carcinogenic Category 2 and chronic toxic Category 4 substance as classified by the CLP Regulation.

Amongst the 25 models, 14 (56%) models were detected with 1 to 2 types of EU-banned carcinogenic PAHs: Naphthalene was found in 13 models and by per kilogram, at levels ranging from 0.01mg to 0.20mg; 1 model was detected with anthracene (0.01mg); another model was found with benzo[a]anthracene (0.01mg) while this same model was also detected with naphthalene (0.04mg).

UV Lamps for Curing Should be Used with Care

As soft gel nail polish must be cured under UV light, improper use of UV lamps or prolonged UV exposure might lead to health hazards. Close proximity with the UV light would not only result in pigmentation in the skin around the nails, it might even cause skin damage in more severe cases and increase the risks of skin cancer. Moreover, the nails could also be weakened by prolonged exposure to UV light. As such, the Council recommends consumers to avoid having gel manicures too frequently, and to consider applying sunscreen products to the hands before exposing to UV light.

Traders are Urged to Improve Product Labelling

Amongst the 25 models, only 8 models included a detailed list of ingredients in English on the bottle or packaging, another 9 models only displayed ingredient information in Korean or Japanese, whereas the remaining 8 models did not contain any ingredient information. Besides, as gel nail polish must be cured under a UV lamp, relevant instructions, such as the duration of UV exposure and type of UV light, are important information for consumers in order to use the product properly. However, only 7 models clearly displayed such usage instructions in English on the packaging, while the remaining 18 models lacked such information. The Council strongly urges manufacturers to improve their labelling, and to provide comprehensive and legible information to safeguard consumers’ health.

When selecting and using gel nail polish products, consumers should pay heed to the following:

  • Consumers should pay attention to the health condition of their nails. If their nails have fungal infections, gel nail manicures might trap the bacteria and aggravate the situation, resulting in a vicious cycle;
  • Read the instructions on the product carefully and only use as instructed to minimise health risks due to misuse. Consumers who are prone to allergic reactions should be exceptionally cautious and note the list of ingredients when selecting such products. If consumers feel dizzy or nauseous or notice an irritating odour when using the gel nail polish, they should discontinue the use of the product immediately as it may suggest that the product contains harmful or irritating substances;
  • Gel nail manicures should be done in a well-ventilated space to minimise the inhalation of volatile harmful substances and solvents, such as PAHs and formaldehyde, in nail polish. Wash hands immediately after the manicure to remove harmful substances and particles as they might cause allergic skin reactions;
  • If consumers have the habit of trimming the cuticles or buffing the nails before applying polish, it could also increase the chance of absorbing PAHs through the wounds or thinned nail surface;
  • Although some overseas studies have indicated that gel nail polish products pose low risks to pregnant women, expectant mothers should still pay extra attention especially if the gel nail products contain formaldehyde and phthalates, as these substances could increase the risk of miscarriage or affect foetal development;
  • Overly frequent or prolonged periods of gel manicures could lead to long-term health issues. Consumers are recommended to give their nails a recovery break every 2 to 3 months for stronger and healthier nails.


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