Chemical Profile: Toluene

What Is It?

Toluene is a petrochemical or lab-produced solvent used in air fresheners, sex toys, and in personal care products like nail polish, nail treatments, and hair dyes. Toluene is also found in ambient air in salons from the use of hair and nail treatments, and in homes, workplaces, and cars as a result of air freshener use. Toluene is also an environmental pollutant.  

The Health Concern

Toluene is linked to short-term problems like headaches, confusion, fatigue, and eye, nose, and throat irritation. In the long-term, toluene is associated with impacts like kidney and liver damage, reproductive harm, and developmental toxicity

How to Avoid It
  • Practice safer scents. Air fresheners can be a source of toluene, among other toxic substances, in indoor air. For tips on how to get safer and fresher air, read our guide to air fresheners.
  • Seek safer trips to the nail salon. Here are some top tips:
    • Shop for nail polishes that don’t contain toluene. Many of these nail polishes are marketed as formulated without the “Toxic Trio.” (While these don’t contain three egregiously toxic substances – toluene, dibutyl phthalate, and formaldehyde – they can still contain other toxic ingredients, so make sure to read labels carefully. Consult our Hazard List to see if the polish contains any of the worst offenders.)
    • Reconsider frequent trips to the nail salon. Give thought to decreasing your number of visits to reduce your exposure.
    • Skip the polish. You can still get your mani-pedi, just forego the polish. Instead of painting nails, simply buff for a shine.
  • Choose nontoxic adult intimacy products, as toluene has been measured in conventional sex toys. Look for 100% medical-grade silicone, borosilicate glass, medical-grade stainless steel, or polished natural stone (ex: quartz). For more tips on choosing safer sexual health products read our guide.
  • Shop for MADE SAFE certified hair color solutions. Toluene is not permitted in certified products.
  • Toluene is a big occupational concern for those who work in nail and hair salons. If you work in one of these industries, read through these resources from Women’s Voices for the Earth for tips on protecting yourself at work.
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