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Is Your Nail Polish Harming Your Health?

If you've ever been to a nail salon, you're probably aware of the pungent smell you encounter right upon entering the space. Needless to say, this smell is produced by the chemical-laden products that are being used in most salons. As you can imagine, these are not very healthy if inhaled over a longer timeframe - after all, there's a reason why most nail technicians were wearing masks at work, even before the global pandemic.

But these chemicals can harm your health not only if you spend a lot of time in nail salons. Traditional nail polish is full of chemicals, some of them harmful. The problem is not only that the fumes are inhaled during the application of the nail polish, but the toxins can also be absorbed through the nail bed. Let alone ingested if you are biting your nails.

There are no conclusive insights as to how much of those chemicals is absorbed by our bodies, or what the exact effects are, but if it's up to me, I'd rather not put them onto my body. Luckily, there are a lot of less harmful nail polish brands you can buy.

Let's first look at which ingredients you will want to avoid.

The big 3 toxins are:

  • formaldehyde

  • toluene

  • dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

Formaldehyde can cause cancer, and all three of them can harm your reproductive health and have effects on the central nervous system. Thankfully, cosmetics in the EU are much more regulated than in other countries like the US. Therefore, you won't find these 3 ingredients in any nail polishes you can buy in the EU anymore. Outside of the EU, look for nail polish that is marked as '3-free'.

If you want to go the extra mile, you can also opt for '5-free' nail polish, which is made without:

  • formaldehyde

  • toluene

  • dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

  • formaldehyde resin

  • camphor

There are even '10-free' nail polishes, which (in addition to the 5 ingredients listed above) are also free from ethyl tosylamide, xylene, parabens, acetone, TPHP, TBHP and gluten.

You should still pay a close look to the list of ingredients because in some cases the above toxins are replaced by other ingredients that could be just as toxic, but haven't been studied yet. Luckily there are many helpful tools to navigate the complicated landscape of cosmetics ingredients, for instance the search function on EWG's Skin Deep®, the website CodeCheck, or different mobile applications you can find with a quick search in the app store. If you want to dig deeper into the different ingredients in nail polish, this guide by LeafScore is a good starting point.

To give you an example, I pulled out the ingredient list of a nail polish I own and ran it through the app CodeCheck. Below you can see all harmful ingredients marked in red, the potentially harmful ones in orange, the non-classified ingredients in grey, and the harmless ingredients in green. Since it includes quite a few carcinogenic and hormonally disruptive toxins, I won't be buying this brand in the future.

Butyl Acetate, Ethyl Acetate, Nitrocellulose, Acetyl Tributyl Citrate, Adipic Acid/Neopentyl Glycol/Trimellitic Anhydride Copolymer, Isopropyl Alcohol, Acrylates Copolymer, Stearalkonium Bentonite, Sucrose Acetate Isobutyrate, Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Benzophenone-1, N-Butyl Alcohol Titanium Dioxide (Ci 77891), Perfluorodecalin, Trimethylpentanediyl Dibenzoate, Hexanal, Polyvinyl Butyral, Dimethicone, Trimethylsiloxysilicate.

Have you found a non-toxic nail polish brand you really like? Let us know in the comments!


I am not an expert, I just researched this topic from a place of personal interest. If I used incorrect terminology or expressed something incorrectly, please feel free to let me know.



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