The Surprising Truth About Your Nail Polish (and why you don’t have to give up your manicures!)

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The Surprising Truth About Your Nail Polish (and why you don’t have to give up your manicures!)

Let’s get this out of the way from the start:  there is no such thing as a chemical free, natural, or non-toxic nail polish.

When it comes to beauty products, few things are so full of chemicals than nail polish.  That said, I am not giving up my pedicures.

There are toxic ingredients in polishes that should be avoided.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy safer polished nails.  It’s important to know what you are putting on (and in) your body – nail polish is no different. The good news is that nail polish formulations are getting safer.  Thanks to pressure  from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and consumers in 2006, several mainstream brands have phased out the top three toxins.  Most polishes today are “3-free” and many others are 4 and 5-free. Want to clean up your manicure or pedicure?  Here’s what you need to know:

1.  3-free is a must, 4-free or 5-free even better

Don’t compromise on this: at a minimum, your polish should be 3-free.  There are many mainstream brands that meet this criteria, so it won’t be hard to find ones you love. Here’s what 3-free, 4-free, and 5-free means:

3-free:  no formaldehyde, toluene or dibutyl phthalate (DBT):

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and not necessary in nail polish.  It’s most often found in nail strengtheners.

Toluene is a chemical also found in gasoline and household paint.  Research shows that chronic and extensive exposure to this solvent can affect the central nervous system, cause headaches, dizziness and fatigue as well as possibly act as a reproductive and developmental toxin.

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is an endocrine disruptor that mimics hormones causes reproductive and neurological damage in laboratory tests.  DBP is banned for use in cosmetics in Europe but not in the US.

OPI and Essie are two popular nail polish brands that are 3-free.

4-free: all of the above + no formaldehyde resin Check List for Safer Nails

This chemical is surrounded by debate.  Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.  Formaldehyde resin (made from combining toluenesulfonamide and formaldehyde) has not been researched enough to concretely show carcinogenic characteristics.  More research needs to be done, but the EWG classifies the ingredient as a known allergen and immune system toxicant that’s “expected to be toxic or harmful.”  Others disagree and say that the chemical is safe because the formaldehyde in it isn’t the “free” kind that’s been nixed from 3-free nail polish.  Why risk it?   There are plenty 4-free brands on the market.  Look for tosylamide/formaldehyde resin on the label to avoid.

5-free: all of the above + no camphor.

Camphor is considered an irritant in large amounts (amounts much higher than what you’d find in nail polish) and is linked to seizures when ingested.  A concern if you bite your nails, or for kids who tend to stick their fingers in their mouths a lot!

Pin this cheat sheet!  Pull it up next time you are choosing a bottle of polish.

2.  “3-4-or 5-Free” doesn’t  mean chemical free, natural, or non-toxic

All solvent-based nail polishes are made up of solvents, plasticizers, and colorants. Chemicals are necessary to make shiny, flexible, colorful lacquer!  Take a closer look at 3 popular nail polishes that are 3-and 5-free.  They all score between 3-5 on the EWG’s Skin Deep Database, indicating “moderate” hazard.  The ingredient list is pretty long, and while they don’t include the top 3, 4, or 5 toxic chemicals, the formulation is still chemically based (ingredients in bold indicate moderate concern in EWG database). 3free Nail Polish Compare

3.  Natural-as-they-get nail polish: 5 free plus…

Nail polish can’t be truly natural, but it can be free of ingredients know to be harmful (5-free) and have less questionable ingredients overall. There are many solvent based polishes marketed as eco-friendly, non-toxic, natural, and even organic.  These are unregulated claims, so the only thing that matters is the ingredient list.

Here are 3 brands that have shorter ingredient lists than conventional 3, 4 or 5-free polishes, go on beautifully, and last as well as conventional nail polishes.  They also score better in the EWG database.


Zoya scores a between 2-3 on the EWG Database (variation in score depends on what “may contain” ingredients are used to create a specific color).  It holds up as long as conventional brands, has a ton of colors, and is reasonably priced between $7 – $10.  I don’t miss my old salon polishes any more!


I love that Sheswai clearly states on their website:  “Sheswai lacquer is NOT ‘all natural, non toxic, or organic.’ If it were, it just wouldn’t be nail polish.” Well said! Sheswai polishes are 5-free, last all week, and have really fun colors.  Their caps are made from a sustainably harvested wood, thereby reducing the use of plastic (and making a very pretty bottle of polish!). $16


Also all 5-free, scores between 2-5 (low – medium hazard) on the EWG Database.  All RGB products are cruelty free and vegan. $18 Natural Nail Polish Compare

4.  What about Water Based nail polishes?

Typically fewer ingredients as solvent based polishes and always 5 free… but still not a chemical free, natural product.  Definitely not the same look or durability.  After trying several water based brands (Acquarella, Scotch Naturals, Suncoat) I felt they weren’t worth the compromise for me. But, I do find these a great option for kids.  My six year old girls love to paint their nails occasionally.   While I would not be comfortable with a solvent based (even 5 free) polish on my 6 year olds, a water based polish is a great compromise.  They don’t know the difference (although I realize this won’t be the case forever!).  They can apply it themselves without me stressing over the inevitable mess, and it peels off easily in the bath.  We use Suncoat.

A formula for safer nails:

1.  BYOP – Bring Your Own Polish!  Standing in the nail salon picking out the perfect color is not the time to check for “5 free”.  Not all polishes list the ingredients on the bottle, and if they do, they are pretty hard to read.  Even if you think a certain brand is 5 free, the saloon may still have older bottles that still have the toxic ingredients.   Manufacturers can change a product’s formula anytime and different colors from the same manufacturer can be more or less safe.  Take the time to find the specific colors and brands you love and bring your own polish.  I always bring my own bottle of Zoya to the nail salon.  Don’t forget base and top coat!

2.  Give your nails a break

File, buff, and the most important step: moisturize cuticles.  Having well moisturized cuticles can turn rough looking nails into well manicured hands instantly.  I use a natural lip balm to avoid buying and carrying additional products.

3.  Consider skipping polish completely during pregnancy

4.  Water based is a great option for young kids Natural-as-they-can-get brands for older kids and teens (Zoya comes in a ton of trendy colors that teens and pre-teens will love, including sparkles!)

Just because a product isn’t completely natural doesn’t mean you should feel guilty about using it.  It’s all about balance, and sometimes “clean enough” is good enough.  Know the facts, read the label, and BYOP!

What do you think? Leave a comment below!

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  1. […] Drugstore brands often contain chemicals banned in other countries and linked to health issues.  There’s no reason to expose ourselves to unnecessary chemicals when Zoya comes in a ton of colors, goes on beautifully, and lasts as long as saloon brands.  All Zoya colors are “5-free” .  Check out the full nail polish review and download the 5 nail polish ingredients to avoid cheat sheet here. […]

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