Are you a fan of nail polish? I sure am. It’s such a simple way to accessorize any outfit. Bright pink, black, red, clear, blue…give me all the colors! Are you with me? But, as with anything I put on my skin, or in this case, on my nails, I like to know what ingredients I’m working with. Are the chemical mixtures in nail polish safe, non-toxic, effective? What do the labels such as 3-Free even mean? Let’s explore.
How to pick the non-toxic nail polish
Do you know what ingredients are most commonly used in nail polish? Growing up, I personally never spent much time thinking about the sparkly chemical mixtures I was applying to my nails. Sure, the scent was pretty potent, but if it bothered me, I’d just open a window and aerate out the room. No big deal!
I had no idea that ingredients such as dibutyl phthalate (DnBP) or Toluene were being used. In fact, I had never even heard of either of these ingredients until just a few years ago. Maybe you haven’t either, and that’s OK.
But, if you’re curious, keep reading.
The top three chemicals you’re most likely to see nail polish brands omitting from their formulas these days are toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate (DnBP).
Why? In the early 2000s, these three ingredients began being widely publicized as toxic. As one study shares, “concerns grew because animal studies had identified DnBP as a reproductive and developmental toxicant,5−7 and a research study in the U.S. in 2000 had shown that women of reproductive age experience much higher exposures to DnBP than other age or gender groups.” (PMC6222550)
DnBP, which is often used to make plastics softer and more flexible is used in nail polish to enhance a polish’s texture and function. Unfortunately, this same ingredient has also been linked to potential reproductive and developmental problems.
Toluene, is a clear, colorless liquid with a distinctive smell often used to make paint, paint thinners and finger nail polish. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSRD), toluene is “good solvent, i.e. a substance that can dissolve other substances.” The concern? Toluene may affect your nervous system (brain and nerves). You can also experience temporary nervous system effects such as headaches, dizziness, or unconsciousness.
Formaldehyde, similar to toluene, is a colorless, flammable gas that has a distinct, strong smell. In low doses, shares ATSRD, breathing in formaldehyde can cause eye, nose and throat irritation.
All three of these chemicals, shares Harvard Health, have also been known to cause allergic contact dermatitis.
Due to the health concerns linked to these three chemicals by 2006, more and more nail polish brands started labeling themselves as 3-Free — free of the “toxic-trio” toluene, formaldehyde, and DnBP.
Have you ever heard of the term “regrettable substitution?” It’s a term used by researchers when they discover that one toxic chemical they’re trying to replace is unfortunately substituted with another chemical that is later found to also be toxic.
Regrettable substitution is unfortunately what happened when nail polish manufacturers replaced the chemical DnBP with a “safer” chemical known as triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), a chemical used to make nail polish more flexible and durable (note:TPHP is primarily used as either a flame retardant or plasticizer). Recently, this chemical has regrettably been shown to be an endocrine disruptor that can adversely affect thyroid function and reproductive health in humans.
As a result, today you’ll find nail polish brands that are labeled 10-Free and above signifying that not only are they free of the “toxic-trio” but also free of chemicals such as TPHP, and other ingredients, such as camphor, Ethyl tosylamide, Xylene, Acetone, or Tert-butyl hydroperoxide. Depending on how many of these chemicals are omitted a brand will label themselves as “5-free,” “7-free,” even “14-free.”
Is nail polish actually toxic?
Good question. While studies have shown that chemicals in nail polish can be absorbed into the body, the exact amount of absorption, and whether it is enough to have negative health effects, are not well established, reports Harvard Health.
That being said, in the study conducted by researchers at Duke University and Environmental Working Group (EWG), it was found that of the two dozen women who participated every single one of them had a metabolite of triphenyl phosphate, or TPHP, in their bodies just 10 to 14 hours after painting their nails. “Their levels of diphenyl phosphate or DPHP, which forms when the body metabolizes TPHP,” the study reported, “had increased by nearly sevenfold.” That’s not a good thing!
“More research is warranted to understand the exposure levels that consumers are receiving,“ reports Heather Stapleton, Ph.D., associate professor at Duke University and principal investigator of the Duke-EWG study. And, as the EWG shares, “there is growing evidence suggesting that TPHP may affect hormone regulation, metabolism, reproduction and development.”
Those who are most at risk are nail salon employees. Day in and day out nail technicians are being exposed to and breathing in chemicals found in glue, polishes, removers, emollients and other salon products. As a result they’re most likely to “experience negative health effects such as asthma and other respiratory illnesses, skin disorders (e.g. allergic contact dermatitis), liver disease, reproductive loss, and cancer,” shares the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the US Department of Labor.
If you’re concerned about the toxicity of the ingredients found in your nail polish, there are a few solutions.
The most definitive way to avoid these harmful chemicals is to cease painting your nails altogether. Kind of boring, I know, but it’s the surest way to reduce your exposure to these chemicals.
Personally, I will occasionally paint my nails. But, I fall under the umbrella of thinking — less is better, i.e. I rarely paint my nails. And, when I do, I use brands that “8-free” and above and free of TPHP.
If you’re looking for safer nail polish alternatives but not sure where to start, I’ve compiled a list of non-toxic nail polish brands to help you out. Each of the brands listed below are free of chemicals used by most conventional brands and transparent about the ingredients they do use.
Tip: Did you know you can recycle your nail polish with Chemwise? Click here for more info!
Non-Toxic Nail Polish Brands
Here’s a list of non-toxic nail polish brands you might consider exploring:
Tenoverten is woman-owned 8-free, cruelty-free, and vegan nail polish brand founded in New York City. This brand offers classic colors ranging from pinks and reds to blues and beiges. Colors are named after the streets of their beloved New York City and free of dibutyl phthalate (dbp), toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, triphenyl phosphate (tphp).
Tenoverten has also partnered with Chemwise to recycle both both leftover nail polish and the glass, plastic caps and brushes of the packaging. If you live in New York City you can bring your old nail polish bottles to their local salons and they’ll take care of recycling the bottles for you!
Butter London is 10-free, vegan, cruelty-free, and gluten-free nail polish brand that offers a variety of colors ranging from purple sparkles to soft pink. According to their website, their Jelly Nail Strengtheners help to repair damaged nails from harsh nail formulas as it contains ingredients such as tea tree oil and bamboo extract.
Products: Nail Care Treatment, Jelly Nail Strengtheners, Patent Shine Lacquer, Peel-Off Glitter, DIY Gel Nails
Côte polishes are vegan, cruelty-free and free of the major toxins often associated with nail polish. Their polishes contain no formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, camphor, formaldehyde resin and triphenyl phosphate (TPHP). Côte nail polish is proudly made in the United States. Their bottles are crafted from Italian glass and include top-of-the-line brushes, allowing for even strokes and accurate application.
Founded by Amy Lin in New York City, sundays is a ten-free, cruelty-free, vegan nail polish brand. Amy believed so strongly in creating a toxic-free product that she spent over a year working with a chemist to develop and research the perfect nail polish formula. sundays also offers a soy-based nail polish remover, cuticle serum, candles, and a few other accessories.
Deborah Lippman nail polish is a 10- free nail polish brand created by celebrity manicurist Deborah Lippman. With a wide variety colors ranging from shimmering lilac to sheer blue you’re sure to find a color for every occassion.
Habit nail polish is free of toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, TPP, DBP, isobutylphenoxy epoxy resin, xylene and parabens. This BIPOC-owned brand is also sustainably packaged with a removable bamboo cap, recycled plastic inner cap, recycled plastic brush and FSC-certified paperboard boxes.
Founded by Jin Soon Choi this 10-free nail polish brand is formulated with high-tech polymers and resins that ensure long wear and a shiny finish. JINSoon offers a wide variety of unique and bold colors.
This Black-owned nail polish brand is not only handmade in small batches in the US but is 10-free and vegan. Rooted Woman was founded by India D. Williams out of her desire to create and promote radical self-care for women.
Locally made in the US, a portion of all proceeds are donated annually to organizations that empower women of all ages.
Known for being virtually odorless and free harsh chemicals such as formaldehyde, toluene, phthalates, Bisphenol A, ethyl acetate and acetone, this water-based nail polish is a great alternative to use with kids.
Developed by Board Certified Podiatric Surgeon Dr. Cary Gannon Ailia nail polishes are ethically sourced, cruelty-free, and free from harsh chemicals. All Aila nail polishes are made without parabens, sulfates, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, dibutyl phthalate, toluene, triphenyl phosphate, xylene, bismuth oxychloride, ethyl tosylamide, methylisothiazolione, hydroquinone monomehtyl ether, gluten, fragrance, animal derivatives. A portion of proceeds from the color “Five Senses” go to supporting the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation.
This Black-owned luxury beauty brand, founded by Rachel James, is designed in Chicago, made in the USA, cruelty free, vegan friendly and 10 free. Products include gel lacquer and classic lacquer and come in a variety of unique and milky colors.
Price: $13.50 (classic lacquer), $20.50 (gel lacquer)
- 10-free (10+ Free, vegan, cruelty-free. Price: $18)
- Auda Beauty (10-Free, BIPOC-owned, vegan, cruelty-free. Price: $18)
- Bruekeln Polished (11-free, BIPOC-owned, vegan, cruelty-free. Price: $11)
- LVX (10-free, vegan, cruelty-free. Price: $18)
- Londontown Lakur (16+ Free, vegan, cruelty-free. Price: $16)
- Mischo Beauty (10-Free, BIPOC-owned, vegan, cruelty-free. Price: $20)
- Oroso (14-free, vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free. Price: $12)
- La Pierre (10-free, BIPOC-owned, vegan, cruelty-free. Price: $15)
- Suite 11 (10-free, BIPOC-owned, vegan, and PETA-certified. Price: $13)
- Lisa Nail Lacquer (10-free, cruelty-free, vegan. Price $8)
- People of Color (10-free, vegan, cruelty-free. Price: $12)
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