Is Shoe Polish Safe?

Huh? shoe polish?

How could something as common as shoe polish not be safe?

Well, unfortunately some shoe polish has a chemical in it that just shouldn’t be there, and it’s all our fault!!

You see, the chemicals that are in consumer products are not necessarily the best chemicals for the job – they are the chemicals that Joe Public thinks are the best chemicals for the job. That is, we are sold what we think we want, rather than what we need, and the single best example of this that I know is shoe polish.

Shoe polish – the older type formulas – are a mixture of oils and waxes that we rub with a stiff brush, allow to dry, and then buff to a shine.

When these were developed years ago, the best solvent to dissolve all the oils and waxes with a chemical called nitrobenzene. It was known, even at the time, that it was a chronic toxin – but it wasn’t acutely toxic, so it was used.

I should explain the difference between an “acute” toxin and a “chronic” toxin.

An acute toxin is one that would have a very quick effect upon you if exposed even for a short time. Any chemical in this category will have a warning diamond on it that looks like this:

Generally, chemicals in this category would not be available to the general public anyway, but it’s good to be aware of it nonetheless.

Chronic toxins are far more insidious. It refers to a toxic effect that is the result of exposure to the chemical over a long period of time. By nature, this kind of effect is very difficult to quantify, as it is difficult to isolate a particular toxic effect to a particular chemical if it has occurred over a long period of time.

Therefore, we should be very cautious if there is even the suggestion of a chronically toxic effect. Nitrobenzene falls into this category.

If you scroll down to section 3 of the MSDS you will see that it says:

Potential Chronic Health Effects:
Extremely hazardous in case of ingestion. Very hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of eye contact (irritant), of inhalation. Hazardous in case of skin contact (permeator). CARCINOGENIC EFFECTS: Not available. MUTAGENIC EFFECTS: Not available. TERATOGENIC EFFECTS: Not available. DEVELOPMENTAL TOXICITY: Not available. The substance is toxic to blood, kidneys, lungs, liver, mucous membranes.

Now here’s the thing. Several years later, they were able to develop a formula that worked just as well as the nitrobenzene, with a different solvent, that was not toxic.

But it smelled different, in fact it was odourless. And that’s what caused the problem. You see when people pick it up and start using it, they said “this isn’t a real shoe polish – it doesn’t smell right”

You know the smell I’m talking about – if you use the old-style traditional shoe polishes, they have a characteristic smell which you instantly recognise. That smell is  nitrobenzene, and when it was removed from the product, people simply stopped using it, because it didn’t “smell ” like shoe polish any more.

So it has persisted to this day.

So how dangerous is the Nitrobenzene, and what precautions should be exercised when using it?

Like any chronic toxin, the mechanism of its effect is not well understood, simply because the chemistry of the human body is so incredibly complex.

So the best approach when using it is simply to be careful, and this involves two things:

1. Always wear gloves when using it.

2. Always use it outside (or in a well-ventilated area) where you will not breathe the vapours.

If you adopt both of these straightforward procedures, it’s perfectly safe.

On the other hand, many shoe polishes these days are water-based – they’re the ones where you paint the polish on and it’s shiny immediately. Although they work, in my opinion they aren’t as good for the leather in your shoes because they contain water.

Stay tuned for a post, coming up soon, on how to look after leather.

In the meantime, let’s hope that the older style shoe polishes are reformulated with a less toxic solvent, but I won’t be holding my breath.


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