5 Deceptive or Misleading Marketing Claims: Nontoxic, XXX-Free, Organic, Natural and Chemical-Free

Learn how to identify five common marketing phrases in the nail industry and question whether they are being used deceptively. By Vivian Valenty, Ph.D.

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We know that pro beauty is highly competitive, with the nail space being no exception. So, it comes as no surprise that some brands may use deceptive or strategically misleading words to grab attention and instill trust. These words are not always blatantly deceptive on their own, but they act as a smoke screen to distract from what has NOT been said. Deception starts when savvy marketers attach words that subconsciously or subliminally connote high-quality attributes without qualifying claimed attributes in proof of performance or formulation.

Customers look online for specific key buzzwords when searching for a product. I will describe how FIVE phrases have become marketing verbiage and how they are often used deceptively.

1. Nontoxic

This word took hold in the nail industry when the Environmental Working Group (EWG) sued nail polish brands for using toluene in their products. The defendants and plaintiffs settled by imposing a 50% maximum on the concentration of toluene in nail polishes. This lawsuit started the scrutiny on other polish ingredients such as formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate.

Formaldehyde, sometimes called methanal or methyl aldehyde, occurs in various forms. As a gas, it can be irritating to the skin, eyes, nose and throat and is a known human carcinogen. High levels of exposure could be fatal. As a polymer, formaldehyde is a liquid called paraformaldehyde, formalin or formol used to preserve biological specimens and is toxic when ingested. In water, formaldehyde forms a diol called methylene glycol. Formaldehyde in its various forms is ubiquitous around us, having found its way (before knowing its harmful health effects) in construction materials, textiles, furniture, adhesives and cosmetics. Quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, polyoxymethylene urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, Bromopol and glyoxal on cosmetics labels, are preservatives effective in killing bacteria because they release formaldehyde. Hair-smoothing products that contain formalin and methylene glycol when heated release formaldehyde gas. With these various terms used in cosmetics, the absence of formaldehyde on product labels does not mean that formaldehyde exposure does not occur.

Dibutyl phthalate, also known as DBP, is used as a plasticizer in traditional nail polishes. Most nail polish brands now avoid DBP use because of its listing on California Proposition 65 as a chemical that may have reproductive toxicity, even though no studies are available on its reproductive, developmental or carcinogenic effects in humans.

Nontoxic means “will not harm.” The word used alone is misleading because toxicity is dose-dependent. Even water, which is essential for life, can be toxic; we can drown and die if we have too much of it. Nail polishes are toxic when ingested but may be nontoxic when used correctly, in their intended application.

Continue reading about the four other common phrases in the July/August 2021 issue of our digital magazine.

About the Author

Vivian Valenty, Ph.D., is the founder and president of VB Cosmetics, the creator and manufacturer of Dazzle Dry. She is also a member of NAILPRO’s 2021 advisory board. She obtained her doctorate in chemistry from Penn State University, and for the past 32 years, has been creating products for the professional nail industry.

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