Is Seche Vite Top Coat Safe To Use? A Cosmetic Chemist's Take On The Cult Favorite

I'll help you understand why California has it on a list of "scary products," and if that even applies to you.
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I'll help you understand why California has it on a list of "scary products," and if that even applies to you.

When I was first asked about Seche Vite Dry Fast Top Coat, I was unaware of its cult status as “the best topcoat, period” or that there are people claiming they “Won't ever use any other top coat!” 

However a quick look at Ulta’s 803 reviews and an average score of 4.6, I was surprised to see that there were a few other comments there too:

“ warning sign about the chemicals contained in the product”

“the smell also was too overwhelming. and the chemicals in it are know [sic] carcinogens.”

“unsafe for preggos because it can cause deformities”

So let’s get into the real science behind your nail polishes and top coats and see if there is some danger lurking in all that lacquer.

So unassuming...

So unassuming...

A quick glance at the back of the Seche Vite bottle and we see a Proposition 65 warning. For those of you not familiar with the California law, Proposition 65 was enacted after a 1986 ballot initiative “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.” The Proposition was intended by its authors to protect California citizens and the state's drinking water sources from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and to inform citizens about exposures to such chemicals. The last part-- “inform citizens about exposures to such chemicals”--is what applies to your cosmetics.

Is it time to freak out yet? Not quite. One major pitfall of this legislation is that it does not take into account safe levels of exposure. Every day, we are all exposed to chemicals that may cause cancer. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ground we stand on. So why are we not all dropping dead? Because our bodies are really good at filtering these dangerous chemicals out, and as long as we have a minimized exposure, we should feel free to live our lives safely. However, according to California state law if any of these items are added to a product it must be clearly stated.

So, what is a Prop 65 chemical? There is a list that gets an annual update, and you can check out the 950ish chemicals yourself. There are four principal ways for a chemical to be added to the Proposition 65 list.

• A chemical can be listed if either CIC or DART (independent committees of scientists and health professionals) finds that the chemical has been clearly shown to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.

• If an organization designated as an "authoritative body" by the CIC or DART (EPA, FDA, OSHA, etc.) says its bad.

• If an agency of the state or federal government requires that it be labeled or identified as causing cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm (most of these are prescription drugs).

• If it is identified in the California Labor Code.

Now that the basics are covered, let’s get back to that bottle of Seche Vite. 

What is this dangerous chemical, toluene?

Toluene is a solvent that is used in many nail polish formulations to dissolve other ingredients and to make a nice smooth, easy-to-apply polish. After application to the nail, toluene will volatilize (evaporate) and leave a smooth, glossy finish (it’s what causes that paint-thinner smell). Toluene is found naturally in crude oil and in the tolu tree (tolu basalm oil) which means…OMG IT'S NATURAL!

Even in the ones that don't say NATURAL!

Even in the ones that don't say NATURAL!

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the effect of toluene on humans at low, environmental doses is unknown. However, short term, high-load doses can result in poor performance on cognitive tests as well as eye and upper respiratory irritation. Chronic solvent abuse (such as huffing) can result in dementia and brain damage, and under specific conditions (low pH) it can dissociate into Benzene which has been directly linked to neural birth defects. 

And this is the big issue and why it has a Proposition 65 label. But this was challenged back in 1994, the reason being that a Prop 65 label in many cases means a death blow to your product. It scares a lot of uninformed people, and you could see why a company (or industry) would want to avoid it.

This issue led the director of the Personal Care Product Council (formerly CTFA) to actually perform a study on nails specifically. In 1994, California State Attorney General’s office announced that “nail enamels containing ... toluene do not require warnings to customers.” This statement came based off a study performed by the CTFA. This study was done on 15 women applying nail polish with toluene.

Dr. Stephen Gettings, director of toxicology for CTFA (personal care product council) stated: “They were to apply the polish as they normally would, with no restriction on the time they took or the amount of product they applied.” As the women polished their nails, CAFA collected the air from their breathing zone and calculated the amount of toluene they were exposed to. 

“We found that the average amount of toluene per exposure period was approximately 0.6 milligrams; California’s limit is 13 milligrams. There is a considerable margin of safety [in avoiding overexposure],” asserts Gettings. He emphasizes that the toluene issue is not one of safety, but of regulations. “The 13 milligrams [amount] has a safety factor of 1,000 times built into it. Really, this is not a safety issue at all.”

What Gettings means by this is that someone using nail polish is exposed to toluene, but she’s exposed at a level so far below the law that she is not at risk. The amount of the chemical in the product is 1/1,000 of the “no observable effect level” (NOEL).

The main fallacy of this study, however, is that this only observed the effects on customers, not the employees that spend eight hours or more each day exposed. This lack of information lead to a study three years later that determined toluene to be an issue to nail technicians and thus put it back on the list.

My conclusion on the matter is that copious amounts of toluene or repeated exposure over a long period of time is harmful to our health (isn’t that true with any substance, though?), but that the small amounts found in nail polish is relatively safe. So that bottle of Seche Vite on your counter or any other nail polish you love to use? As long as you’re not huffing it, you will be fine.

The other good thing about this is that an entire industry is devoted to taking proactive steps by eliminating any potentially harmful ingredients from products, and it’s these issues that keep chemists like me employed.