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Q. Dear Umbra,

How do I dispose of my formaldehyde-laden nail polish in an environmentally safe fashion? Can I recycle the glass bottle and plastic top in my recycling with the polish inside?

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Petaluma, CA

toesDon’t just toe the line! Use less toxic polish.Photo: Maureen LunnA. Dearest Jacquie,

What a perfectly-timed-for-spring-cleaning question. Throwing products with chemicals like formaldehyde in the trash — or even a standard recycling bin — is like sweeping Agent Orange under your rug.

So how does one deal with these iffy finger paints? Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT dispose of nail polish or remover down the drain, in a storm sewer, or in the trash. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies nail polish and remover as household hazardous waste. The chemicals in polish and removers can contaminate wastewater treatment plants and pollute bodies of water or contaminate ground and drinking water.

And that’s not the only household hazardous waste gathering in your home. According to the EPA, “each person in the United States produces an average of 4 pounds of household hazardous waste each year for a total of about 530,000 tons/year.”

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The reason I bring this up is that much of this homesteading hazardous waste can be disposed of in the same place at the same time. For a list of hazardous household materials that need to be disposed of with care — including paint, thinners, antifreeze, drain openers, cosmetics, and rat poison — check here.

To find out the safe and approved disposal methods for products in your house, call the National Recycling Hotline at 1-800-CLEANUP (253-2687). You can also check Earth911. Enter the product you are looking to recycle and your zip code to find where to recycle near you.


Q. Dear Umbra,

I love painting my nails, but I’ve recently been thinking about all the toxic ingredients and chemicals that could be in both the polish and remover solution. Could you enlighten me more on the ingredients, their environmental impacts, and possible effects on my health?

Worcester, MA

A. Dearest Erin,

Nail polish may look pretty, but when you look at the ingredients, what you find is is pretty scary. Standard finger paint and its remover are full of toxic chemicals. 

As noted in Grist’s book, Wake Up and Smell the Planet, “If you are willing to give up just one beauty product, make it nail polish. A 2006 study by the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum reported that the nail industry uses 10,000 chemicals in its products, 89 percent of which have not been safety tested by any independent agency, and some of which are known or suspected carcinogens.”

All that said, sometimes one does want to add a little color to one’s life and extremities. Here’s a handy review of less toxic polishes and removers to choose from. Keep in mind, there is no completely nontoxic nail polish. But some brands, like Priti Polishes, are made without endocrine disruptors and carcinogens such as formaldehyde, dibutyl phathalate (DBP), toluene, and camphor.

You can check the safety ratings of polishes on the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep database. While you’re nailing this, avoid acetone polish removers, and keep soy-based nail polish remover at your fingertips instead.