The Ingredients in Nail Polish & The Safest Options

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Did you realize nail polish contains toxic ingredients?

I always kept my nails painted when I was in high school. I was a nail biter back then. Keeping my nails painted helped me break that habit.

I had multiple shades of numerous colors. Including various glitters and top coats that would add shimmers. My collection of nail polishes rivaled that of a nail salon. There were many Friday afternoons spent hanging out with the girls, painting our nails to get ready for the weekend.

Other than the smell of nail polish, I hadn’t really thought much about whether it could be harmful to me.

I began questioning the ingredients in nail polish in 2009. I was pregnant with my oldest son at that time. The smell of the fumes concerned me. I worried that they could be dangerous for my baby.

nail polish safety

It turns out the concerns with nail polish goes beyond breathing in the fumes. The toxins in nail polish can enter our bloodstream when we apply polish to our nails.

Now that I have children of my own, I sat down to research all of the ingredients in nail polish. I determined which chemicals I wanted to avoid and found companies that made nail polish free from the chemicals. Then I tested them.

Now many months later I can give you all the details about everything I learned. This includes the research I found and my favorite safe nail polishes.

nail polish

Let’s start with a little information about nail polish. Including the history of nail polish.

what is nail polish

Nail polish is a type of colored lacquer. However, it is specially formulated so that it is strong, colorful, flexible, and resistant to fading or chipping.

the history of nail polish

The concept of applying a product on to nails to color them originated in China in 3000BC. The first nail polishes were made from a mixture of beeswax, vegetable dies, and egg whites. However modern day nail polish was first developed in 1932 by Revlon.

ingredients in nail polish

There are a number of ingredients in nail polish. The ingredients used in nail polish fall into five categories. Each category serves a different purpose. All of the ingredients together make an easy to apply nail lacquer that remains colorful, shiny, and flexible once dry.

base or film former

The base of many nail polishes starts with nitrocellulose. Nitrocellulose is then dissolved in either butyl acetate or ethyl acetate. Both butyl acetate and ethyl acetate are generally considered to be safe in cosmetic use.


Some brands of nail polish add thickening agents, like stearalkonium hectorite, as well. Thickening agents are added to nail polish to keep the ingredients from separating. Stearalkonium hectorite comes from a naturally occurring mineral and is one of the minerals that make up bentonite clay.


Solvents are used to keep the polish’s ingredients mixed together. The type of solvent used affects a nail polish’s thickness and drying time. Toluene, Formaldehyde, alcohol, and ethyl acetate are all examples of solvents.


Nail polish contains resins so it becomes hard once dry. Resins allow nail polish to adhere to nails. Formaldehyde resin is commonly used in nail polish.


Plasticizers are added to nail polish to give it flexibility. This flexibility helps to prevent the polish from cracking and chipping. Camphor and Ethyl Tosylamide are used as plasticizers in nail polish.


Nail polish gets its color from pigments. These pigments are either naturally occurring or made in a lab.

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Chemicals in Nail Polish

what are the chemicals in nail polish

The top ten chemicals that may be found in nail polish that you want to be concerned about are:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Toluene
  • DBP (Dibutyl Phthalate)
  • Formaldehyde Resin
  • Camphor
  • Xylene
  • Tripenyl Phosphate (TPHP)
  • Ethyl Tosylamide
  • Parabens
  • Acetone

These are some of the same chemicals found in women’s personal care products and in our homes.

how harmful are the chemicals in nail polish


Formaldehyde is a dangerous chemical that can be found in cosmetics. It may be added as a direct ingredient. It can also be released, as a by-product, from preservatives used in nail polish.

Research shows that it is directly linked to causing cancer. Additionally, it is irritating to our respiratory, gastrointestinal, skin, and immune systems.

Nail polish containing formaldehyde must be clearly labeled. This is due to consumer push-back to eliminate formaldehyde from cosmetics.


Toluene is added to nail polish to help keep it thin and easy to spread.

It is classified as a carcinogen. Toluene is toxic to our neurologic and immune systems. Exposure to the vapors during pregnancy can cause birth defects or miscarriage. Many nail polishes are now labeled as being toluene-free.

Dibutyl Phthalate

Dibutyl Phthalate has been banned for use in cosmetics by the European Union.

It is an endocrine disruptor. Research shows that it negatively affects fertility. It can contribute to infertility and cause issues with the anatomy of unborn males. It is linked to respiratory issues and immune system issues as well.

Formaldehyde Resin

Formaldehyde resin is not linked to cancer like formaldehyde. However, there is evidence that it may be toxic to our respiratory and immune systems. It has also proven to cause skin irritation.


Camphor has recently shown to be irritating to both skin and the respiratory system.


Xylene has shown to be toxic to many of our organ systems including the respiratory system, neurological system, kidneys and liver, and reproductive system. It is also irritating to our skin.

Triphenyl Phosphate

Triphenyl Phosphate negatively effects many of our body’s systems. It is toxic to our reproductive and endocrine (hormone-producing) systems. It is also considered neurotoxic and has negative neurodevelopmental effects.

Ethyl Tosylamide

Ethyl tosylamide is used as a plasticizer in nail polish. This helps nail polish be flexible, so it doesn’t chip as easily.

The European Commission has banned it from being used in cosmetics. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) labels it a 3, which is not bad. Though EWG doesn’t present any real data on any negative effects it could produce; it may have a relationship with antibiotic resistance.


Parabens can disrupt our endocrine system and mimic female estrogen. There is evidence that it is irritating to our skin and immune systems.


Acetone is irritating to our skin, lungs, and eyes. There is also concern that is is toxic to our respiratory and neurologic systems.

How can we avoid the chemicals in nail polish

As we, the consumer becomes more aware of the effect of the toxic ingredients in our cosmetics, companies respond.

We can now find nail polish companies that are producing safer nail polishes. Many of these companies will label their nail polishes. These labels help us understand what chemicals the polish does not contain.

Labels on Nail Polish

There are brands committed to making safe nail polish. These companies stand behind their product. The labels they place on their nail polishes helps us to know what chemicals are not in that nail polish.

3-Free and 5-Free Nail Polish

A nail polish labeled three-free does not contain formaldehyde, toluene, or DBP.

Nail polishes labeled five-free do not contain the three-free plus formaldehyde resin and camphor.

Unfortunately, protecting yourself from the top three or five chemicals is not enough.

7-Free and 8-Free Nail Polish

As consumers continue to push for safer cosmetics, companies are now making nail polish that is seven-free, eight-free, nine-free, and ten-free. These nail polishes eliminate more chemicals than the three-free and five-free.

Nail polish labeled seven-free does not contain seven toxic ingredients. This includes all of the five harmful chemicals that are not in five-free. Additionally, seven-free nail polish does not contain xylene or triphenyl phosphate.

Eight-free nail polish is free from ethyl tosylamide in addition to the seven chemicals not found in seven-free nail polish.

Why 7-free and 8-free is not safe enough

A few years ago Duke University teamed up with the Environmental Working Group and together they conducted a study focused on TPHP.

Why did they pick TPHP?

Triphenyl Phosphate (TPHP) is a known endocrine disruptor. That means it can interfere with the functions of the endocrine system. The endocrine system is responsible for producing hormones within our bodies. These hormones regulate our metabolism, growth and development, tissue functions, reproduction, sexual functions, sleep, mood, and MORE!

Furthermore, when Duke and EWG tested ten nail polishes, eight of them came back positive for TPHP. Two of those eight polishes did not list TPHP as an ingredient.

study results

The findings of the study conducted by Duke and EWG are alarming. Metabolites of the chemical were consistently found in the participants’ urine. It was found in the urine of 95% of the adults and 100% of the children participating in the study. These participants did not drink TPHP or even applied it onto their skin. All they did was apply nail polish, that contained TPHP, onto their nails.

More studies have been conducted around the globe. All with similar findings. In Asia, a metabolite of the chemical was found in women’s breastmilk.

9-Free and 10-Free Nail Polish

Some companies take it even farther than eight-free and eliminate either parabens or acetone from their nail polish. These nail polishes are nine-free.

In an effort to make nail polish without harmful additives some companies make ten-free nail polish. These nail polishes have eliminated all ten of the chemical ingredients listed above.

Best Nail Polish for Kids and Pregnant Women

The best nail polishes for children and pregnant women are free from all ten of the toxic ingredients listed above. Additionally, some companies have gone beyond creating a product that is just 10-Free. These companies have eliminated additional chemicals from their polishes.

15-Free Nail Polish

Prim and Pure nail polish decided to take safe nail polish another step. They have created a water-based nail polish using natural food colors. Prim and Pure claims that their nail polish is fifteen-free!

The Prim and Pure nail polishes are free from Formaldehyde, Toluene, DBP, Formaldehyde Resin, Camphor, Xylene, TPHP, Nitrocellulose Plasticizers, Glycol Ethers, BPA, Acetates, Phenoxyethanol, Parabens, Phthalates, Soy, Gluten, Synthetic FD&C Dyes, and GMOs.

What do I like about it? I love that the maker of Prim and Pure set out to make a nail polish that is safe for kids. They make nail polish tints using fruits and vegetables instead of artificial food dye.

Nail polish remover can also contain toxic chemicals. The makers of Prim and Pure decided to create their product so that chemicals were not necessary to remove the polish from nails. They created their nail polish so that it peels off.

Prim & Pure

A water based nail polish developed by a mom, for moms! If your child is allergic to FD&C colors, this nail polish is safe!

Con: Limited color availability.

Purchase it from Amazon here

More Non-Toxic (and Vegan) 10-Free nail polish

Piggy Paint

A water based nail polish that uses all biodegradable ingredients. Piggy Paint is a 10-Free polish with quite a few color choices, including their Sophi line. Piggy Paint also makes a non-toxic nail polish remover.

Purchase it from Amazon here.

100% Pure

A 10-Free nail polish with a large selection of colors. Includes shimmer and glitter colors as well. They offer a non-toxic base coat and top coat too.

Purchase it from Amazon here.


Cote is a 10-Free polish with numerous colors available. They also make a clear base/top coat and nail polish remover. Both of which are also non-toxic.

Purchase it from Amazon here.


A water based polish free from all 10 chemicals. They have a large selection of colors, and come out with new collections seasonally. They have a non-toxic nail conditioner and nail polish remover as well.

Purchase is from Amazon here.


They state they are the first company to create 3-Free. Now their polishes are 10-Free. Zoya has a large selection of colors. They also offer a base coat, a top coat, and nail polish remover.

Purchase it from Amazon here.


Offers 50 different colors of their 10-Free nail polish. They have non-toxic base and top coats too.

Purchase it from Amazon here


Offers an array of water-based 10-Free nail polishes. Suncoat uses minerals for pigmentation and offers peelable or regular nail polish. They also offer a range of nail polish removers including a plant based nail polish remover.

Purchase it from Amazon here.

Honey Bee Gardens

A water based nail polish that stats they are 12-Free. Honey Bee Gardens is available in 26 different colors. Also has a nail polish remover available.

Purchase it from Amazon here.

Orly Breathable

States it is 13-Free and is available in a range of colors. Orly Breathable is marketed as an “all-in-one” and does not recommend a base or top coat to be used with the product.

Purchase it from Amazon here.

kid safe nail polish

Nail polish made with edible ingredients is a newer concept. Only food-grade ingredients are used to make these nail polishes. Therefore eliminating all ten of the chemical ingredients.

Two companies have begun making and selling nail polish made with edible ingredients. Kid Licks was the first company to market themselves as making completely safe nail polish. Candy Coated Kids recently launched their edible nail polish product now as well.

How long do they last?

These nail polishes do not have the ability to wear like more traditional nail polishes, but when you have children wanting to change their nail polish every couple of days, it’s likely okay.

removing the nail polish

Kid Licks requires alcohol, soap, and water to remove the polish from the nails. Whereas, you can lick off Candy Coated kids polish.

The safest nail polishes

I hope you can feel good about painting your and your children’s nails now that you have some safe polish choices!

Have you used non-toxic nail polish? Did I miss your favorite 10-Free nail polish?

If you haven’t already, check out my online baby care courses that I created just for you!

Also, don’t forget to subscribe to stay up-to-date on everything going on over here. Also, come find me on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook for more!

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Brooke has been helping families as a board-certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, since 2007. Prior to that, she spent 4+ years working as a Registered Nurse in both pediatric and postpartum nursing. Brooke holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Master of Science in Nursing. Additionally, she is dual-licensed in her state as both an APRN and RN.

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