Craving the Smell of Nail Polish (and Remover) While Pregnant

Do you have a secret you’re keeping? Are you hiding the fact that you are compulsively drawn to the smell of nail polish or polish remover while you’re pregnant?

It’s estimated that about 13% of pregnant women may crave the smell of nail polish or nail polish remover with one or more pregnancies. There isn’t much published information on the causes and effects of smelling nail polish and remover, but it is best to avoid brands that use formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) in their formulation.

Read on to find out if it’s normal to crave the smell of nail polish and remover during pregnancy. Learn how prevalent the condition is, what may be causing it and what can be done to help.

Is it normal to crave smells during pregnancy?

There are more women who crave smells during pregnancy than you think. And, since they know these types of fumes can sometimes be harmful to both themselves and their babies, it’s not often discussed with medical professionals unless it becomes extreme.

Many women crave odd and sometimes harmful smells during pregnancy. You won’t find many scientific studies or much medical literature on the subject. But, the online message boards for pregnancy and mom blogs are filled with women who have quietly experienced this condition.

The craving can actually become a compulsion. Many women report having overwhelming urges to repeatedly smell things like:

  • Gasoline
  • Nail polish and remover
  • Car exhaust
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Bleach
  • Pine scented cleaners (and other household cleaning products)
  • Laundry soap
  • Charcoal
  • Ashes or cigarette butts
  • Dry erase markers
  • Black dirt
  • Rubber tires

Giving in to these cravings can lead to a euphoric feeling. There are stories in message boards of pregnant women compulsively washing clothes several times a day just to smell the laundry soap. Some even walk around with a permanent marker in their pocket so they can give it a few quick sniffs when no one was watching.

Nail polish and remover are just two more chemicals in the list that some pregnant women crave to smell.

Why do pregnant women crave the smell of nail polish?

There are 3 toxic chemicals in nail polish that give it that distinct smell. They are formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), or the “Big 3.”

Many accounts of pregnant women craving the smell of chemicals like nail polish are due to iron or other mineral deficiency. Once they are treated for the deficiency, the craving usually goes away. For some, however, no cause is particularly evident.

There hasn’t been much research into specific causes pregnant women may crave the smell of nail polish or other non-food items. The causes for those without anemia or mineral deficiencies are still mostly unknown and require more study.

Why do pregnant women crave the smell of nail polish remover (acetone)?

As with nail polish, nail polish remover is also a cocktail of potent chemicals.

It also has a “Big 3” of harmful chemicals to avoid. They are isopropyl acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, and n-methyl-pyrrolidone.

Craving the smell of nail polish remover can also be linked to iron or mineral deficiencies in some cases.

What is pica and can it cause olfactory cravings?

Pica is a craving to eat non-food substances and is somewhat common during pregnancy. Oftentimes it is linked to an iron or mineral deficiency. Another form that causes olfactory cravings is called desiderosmia. This is the craving to smell non-food items such as chemicals, solvents, and other materials. 

Desiderosmia doesn’t always occur together with pica or an iron deficiency. More studies are needed to determine its other causes.

What happens if you inhale nail polish while pregnant?

Inhaling nail polish in small quantities won’t hurt you while pregnant. While you should limit your exposure to toxic chemicals, having your nails done occasionally isn’t harmful.

There are three toxic chemicals in nail polish that can be harmful with ongoing exposure. The “Big 3” are formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). Intermittent contact with these chemicals is not overtly bad for pregnant women. But you should be mindful of the amount of exposure you receive to these chemicals over time.

In studies of pregnant women exposed to toluene and DBP, these chemicals have been linked to birth defects and developmental problems for babies. Overexposure to formaldehyde has been associated with spontaneous abortion, preterm labor, and low birth weight. 

According to the March of Dimes, continuous contact with solvents, such as those in nail polish, can damage the liver, kidneys, and brain of the mother.

Of course, these occurrences are only an issue with ongoing exposure such as in a work environment like salons or laboratories.

For some pregnant women, the overwhelming urge to inhale nail polish can become a compulsion. Since they want to continuously smell these solvents, they try to come into contact with them as often as possible and may hide the behavior. 

The best advice is to avoid exposure to the toxic chemicals in nail polish as much as possible. Several cosmetics companies like Zoya, Essie, OPI, and Sally Hansen now produce nail polishes that are “3-free.”

What happens if you inhale nail polish remover (acetone) while pregnant?

Isopropyl acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, and n-methyl-pyrrolidone are commonly used solvents in nail polish removers. The majority of testing for acetone specifically has been conducted on animals. However, long-term exposure for the mother can damage the kidneys, liver, and nerves. 

Breathing moderate to high levels of nail polish remover with acetone over time can irritate your nose, throat, lungs. Heavy exposure over long periods, such as working in a nail salon over time can have negative effects on both you and your baby.

There has been no specific research published on the effects of inhaling nail polish remover on pregnancy outcomes. However, in animals, heavy exposure caused stillbirth, low birth rate, and in some cases malformation.

The best pregnancy-safe nail polish

The bottom line is it’s best to limit exposure to the chemicals in nail polish and remover. The Zoya brand is a pioneer of the 3-free nail polish.

Zoya also offers a 10-free formula that is vegan-friendly and free from parabens, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, and camphor among other harmful chemicals. This professional lacquer nail polish is an excellent choice for moms-to-be who want pregnancy-safe nail polish. 

There are over 400 gorgeous shades that are formulated for long-lasting wear. Zoya is also fairly affordable at $12 per bottle.

The best pregnancy-safe nail polish remover

Zoya also has a fantastic nail polish remover that smells good without all the harsh chemicals of other brands.

With Zoya Remove + you can remove nail polish gently, effectively, and even safely during pregnancy. It’s a 3-in-1 formula nail polish remover, nail prep, and nail conditioner. It contains no isopropyl acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, or n-methyl-pyrrolidone. It’s a little pricier, but it leaves nails beautifully conditioned without drying cuticles.

Zoya’s award-winning formula remover costs around $12 for 8 oz, but a little goes a long way. You can also purchase a 32 oz refill bottle for $28, and top off your smaller bottle as needed.

Subscribe to get all things baby life!

Join our community to get answers to common parenting questions, guides, deals from our partners and much more!