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Painting Baby & Toddler Nails: Is It Safe?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Schlette, MSN, RN
Learn to keep your baby safe from nail polish toxins.

Decorating your little one’s nails with nail polish can sometimes seem irresistible when you have a pretty little girl in your arms.

But there are a couple of things that parents might want to consider before painting their baby or toddler’s fingernails and toenails.

Preliminary research has shown that traditional nail polish, even those labeled as “toxin-free,” can be toxic and pose potential health risks (1).

But is painting your baby’s nails really that bad? We’ll examine the issue from all sides so you can make an informed decision.

Key Takeaways

  • Traditional nail polish can be toxic and pose health risks to babies and toddlers, as their fingers and toes often end up in their mouths.
  • Common chemicals in nail polish, such as toluene, phthalates, and formaldehyde, can cause health issues with prolonged exposure.
  • To minimize risks, use non-toxic nail polish and give nails time to breathe before reapplying; remove it after one or two days.
  • Consider non-toxic nail polish brands like Karma Organic Natural Nail Polish and Piggy Paint Non-Toxic Nail Polish for safer alternatives.

Is Nail Polish Safe for Babies and Toddlers?

Nail polish can contain an array of chemicals, some of which are endocrine disruptors (2). These chemicals can harm a baby’s sensitive system as it’s still developing.

When babies begin to investigate the world around them, they tend to start by chewing their hands. This may cause them to swallow some nail polish fragments.

Nail polish poisoning is a real thing. It’s caused by swallowing the polish or breathing in large amounts of fumes (3). This becomes problematic as a baby’s fingers, and even toes, tend to gravitate toward their mouth every chance they get. This is not an easy behavior to stop since it’s a natural part of their development.

Typical Chemicals Found in Nail Polish

Although it is pretty, nail polish can contain several potentially toxic chemicals.

Here are three examples:

1. Toluene

Although nail polish manufacturers are beginning to use less toluene, you can still expect to find this solvent in some brands. This ingredient is also used in paint thinners, cleaning solutions, artificial fragrances, and other products (4).

Companies that use toluene in nail polish aren’t allowed to use a concentration of more than 50%. Fortunately, it’s hard to find reports of adverse effects from simply applying nail polish to one’s nails.

But prolonged exposure to toluene, like inhaling large amounts of fumes, can lead to problems with the nervous system. It can also cause upper respiratory issues (5).

2. Phthalates

Phthalates are a collection of chemicals you can expect to see in hundreds of products. Companies use these in many items, from lubricating oils and nail polish to toys, detergents, and food packaging (6).

This chemical has long been a regular in baby products, such as baby powder, oil, soap, and shampoo. There are no reports of side effects from using these products on babies. Experts can trace it from a urine sample, but there are no health concerns.

The biggest concern with phthalates comes if you use them while pregnant. When tracking phthalates in an animal lab test, specialists found links to congenital disabilities and developmental problems (7).

3. Formaldehyde

Manufacturers use formaldehyde in nail polish as a hardener to prevent the polish from chipping. Companies making building products also use it, and it can be found in vehicle emissions (8).

Formaldehyde has been shown to cause skin irritation and allergic reactions (9).

This chemical is used by various nail polish brands but generally under a different name. You may recognize it as methylene glycol or formalin.

It’s something to be conscious of since some people are allergic to formaldehyde. Exposure can, in such cases, lead to adverse reactions, especially in young babies.

The same goes for long-term exposure, where the chances for respiratory problems and some types of cancer increase.

Other Considerations

You might think that a simple solution to keep nail polish away from your baby’s mouth is to only apply it to the toes. But, as most moms can testify, those little tootsies are also bound to reach the mouth at some point.

The next thing to keep in mind is your own nails. If you decide to apply nail polish, ensure it is completely dry before your little one gets a hold of your fingers.

Many moms opt for applying a non-toxic nail polish instead, at least for the first six months.

Despite the potential risks, if you are still adamant that you want to apply paint to your baby’s nails, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Do: Use non-toxic polish.
  • Do: Give the nails time to breathe before reapplying.
  • Do: Keep the nail polish bottles stored out of reach of your little ones.
  • Don’t: Let nail polish stay on your baby’s nails for longer than one or two days.
  • Don’t: Apply it while they are awake, especially if your baby is small. Sleeping babies are easier to handle, making the application time much quicker.

Potentially Baby & Toddler Safe Nail Polish

Fortunately, some brands have nail polishes designed specifically for kids, without any toxic chemicals.

Take a look at these examples:

1. Karma Organic Natural Nail Polish

Product Image of the Karma Organic Natural Nail Polish-Non-Toxic Nail Art, Vegan and Cruelty-Free...

Karma Organic really knows how to please us. This nail polish is free of toxins and is cruelty-free, too! This company delivers a quality polish that is durable.

It’s available in a variety of shades. My favorite is “Sand Between My Toes,” as it screams summer.

2. Piggy Paint Non-Toxic Nail Polish

Piggy Paint nail polish is another excellent choice for your little one. It’s water-based and 100% chemical-free, so it’s safe to use — even on babies. The polish is made in the U.S. and comes in different colors, with four in a pack.

I bought some for my little one, and it was an absolute favorite! However, it takes time to dry when applying a second layer and chips off quickly. Some moms suggest using a hair dryer between applications, which seems to help remedy both these issues.

If you use a hair dryer to dry the polish faster, ensure it is not set to high heat. You do not want to burn your little one’s fingers and toes.

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Paint With Caution

Considering the potential risks and the fact that painting your toddler or baby’s nails is by no means a necessity, we believe it’s best to stay clear for the first few years.

However, if you feel you cannot resist or would like to paint your baby’s nails for a special occasion, we recommend trying to get your hands on one of the non-toxic nail polish brands mentioned above.

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Medically Reviewed by

Jennifer Schlette, MSN, RN

Jennifer Schlette MSN, RN, is a pediatric intensive care nurse at Children's Hospital of New York for the past 14 years. Jennifer also has extensive experience teaching Maternity and Obstetric Nursing, as well as Pediatrics Nursing.