Safer Nail Polish Ingredients

- Should we be worried about what's in nail varnish?

Nail polish ingredients: what's all the fuss about? It seems a simple thing, to put a little colour on your nails, doesn't it?

But some nail varnish ingredients are deeply suspect from a health viewpoint. And some nail polish ingredients are even causing concern because of their effects upon the environment.

Are there safer ingredients for nail polish? What are they and where can we find the products that contain them? This article tries to provide a few pointers.

Picture right thanks to Bludado

But first... what's wrong with ordinary nail polish ingredients anyway?

First a little history...

Nail polish has a long history stretching back about 5000 years. It was first developed by the Chinese. They used mainly harmless ingredients such as beeswax, egg white and vegetable dyes.

The ancient Egyptians used henna and other natural products to colour their nails. Only the highest ranking people were allowed to wear bright red nail polish and you could tell a person's social status from the colour they wore.

Modern synthetic nail polishes are a relatively recent innovation.

Nitrocellulose or gun cotton was developed in the 19th century. It is highly combustible and even explosive but it creates films which can hold other substances in suspension. It is the basis for most nail polishes. It also used to be the main constituent of cine film.

Some early 20th century nail varnishes even used scrapped cine film as the main raw ingredient. No wonder some old films have completely disappeared!

Nail polish ingredients causing concern

These are the main things you find among modern nail polish ingredients:

  • solvents and drying agents;
  • thickeners and hardening agents;
  • a whole host of ingredients which give the polish its desirable appearance - colours and sheens.

The main nail polish ingredients giving cause for concern are solvents such as toluene and formaldehyde, and phthalates such as dibutyl phthalate.

There are also dyes, synthetic preservatives and fragrances which give cause for concern, too.

First the solvents

Nail polish ingredients often include toluene.

Solvents such as toluene and xylene are petroleum-based products that have been linked to cancer.

Toluene According to Skindeep, the EWG analysts, there are 17 separate health concerns about toluene. These include risks to human reproduction and development, being carcinogenic (cancer causing) and being damaging to the immune system. Quite a list.

Toluene is also classed as unsafe according to the International Fragrance Association.

Formaldehyde (also called formalin) may cause allergic reactions in some people and is unsafe for use by asthmatic people. It is a known carcinogen - that is, it definitely does cause cancer. It is still used in some nail products, though it is being replaced in many brands because of health concerns.

Other organic solvents used include ethyl acetate and butyl acetate. Ethyl acetate is an irritant and there are some other health concerns. Similarly, butyl acetate is considered toxic and an irritant and may cause respiratory and other problems.

These chemicals are included because they evaporate, helping the plastic nail polish coating to dry and harden.

The fact that they evaporate means that they are being absorbed by the air, which, of course may be breathed in by the nail polish wearer.

There has not yet been enough research into the health effects of these nail polish ingredients.

Hardeners plasticisers and resins

There are many different nail polish ingredients to make hundreds of different products. The main plasticiser that causes concern is a phthalate. (See below)

Other resins and plasticizers used include castor oil, amyl and butyl stearate, and mixes of glycerol, fatty acids, and acetic acids.

There are many, many ways of combining ingredients to create saleable products with desirable qualities. So many products have huge lists of ingredients.


Nail polish ingredients that cause concern include phthalates (pronounced "thal-ates").

Phthalates are used to keep nail polish from chipping. They do this by having a plasticising effect on the other ingredients, i.e. they make it flexible and less brittle. 

Health concerns over phthalates

Exposure to phthalates has been blamed for birth defects. Male babies may have had their future reproducive abilities compromised by their mothers' preference for a nail polish.

The Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, at the University of Rochester, USA conducted experiments in 2005 to show that phthalates could affect the reproductive health of baby boys.

Dibutyl phthalate is the main phthalate found in nail polish ingredients. It is now often replaced with phthalic anhydride which also has a long list of health concerns leveled at it, according to the EWG.

Phthalates normally should be listed along with other chemicals on the ingredients list in the US. Such ingredients are the responsibility of the company using them; the FDA does not pre-screen such ingredients.

In the US phthalates are still in common use. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel (CIR) - which is run by the cosmetics industry - assumes responsiblity for analyzing chemicals in cosmetics - but only after they have appeared in shops! So far it has not asked for phthalates to be removed from cosmetics.

The European Union has banned both phthalates and formaldehyde from use in cosmetics, including nail polish.

More health concerns about phthalates

One of the main concerns about pthalates is that these chemicals make the skin more penetrable. This leaves the person using them more at risk from other chemicals which can thereby get into the bloodstream.

One study by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta tested 289 adults for phthalates. Every single person tested positive, with women of childbearing age being affected the most. As women of childbearing age and under are the people most likely to use cosmetics in large quantities, the suspicion must rest that cosmetic use is at least partly the cause of this.

However, phthalates are in use widely in industry, appearing in such products as flooring, detergents and food packaging. Cosmetics are just one way that these chemicals can access our systems.

Phthalates have been in use in industry for more than 50 years and there is now some re-assessment going on to the effect that the health and environmental dangers may have been overstated.

But it is certainly clear that if you are pregnant or breastfeeding you would be well advised to avoid these products. When you use products containing phthalates in your skin and beauty regime you are exposing yourself to them at very close quarters!

In 2013 a Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists report suggested that women avoid most modern consumer products during pregnancy, in order to reduce chemical exposure. It was widely derided as being too vague and confusing. But the point really was to help women to avoid exposure to such chemicals as phthalates. The report does not mention nail polish as such - but advises against exposure to other common personal care items which contain phthalates. You can see it here.

Environmental effects of phthalates

Phthalates also have environmental effects. Dibutyl Phthalate affects shellfish and fish and can be a problem in water sources. Of course the amounts found in nail polish are a tiny percentage of the phthalates that are finding their way into the wider environment.

Colours and sheens

Dyes and metallic sheens are nail polish ingredients which can have health and environmental implications.

There is a huge variety of ingredients in use, including even, would you believe, fish scales!

This product, known as "guanine", is cleaned and very finely ground and then held in suspension in the solvents and other nail polish ingredients. It creates a pearly effect.

Modern nail polishes are made using a variety of sophisticated techniques and ingredients to bring hard-wearing colours and pearlised sheens to consumers.


Mica is a common ingredient which gives a lustrous sheen to nail polish. Micas are forms of the mineral silica which do occur naturally. Even so, micas as found in nail polish ingredients, are classified as toxic and also as bioaccumulators (i.e. they tend to accumulate in the bodies of animals, including us.)

Nevertheless, mica is at present classified as a low risk nail polish ingredient.

What are the effects of these ingredients?

In many cases we don't actually know what effects they might have for the simple reason that no tests for safety have been done. The colour "D & C Red 7 Lake" for example is used in many well known nail polishes (Maybelline, Orly, Lippmann collection to name a few) but has not been assessed for safety, according to the EWG Skindeep site.

Nail polish ingredients - some safer alternatives

Nail polish ingredients that are safer certainly exist and products containing them can be found in many health food outlets and other stores. Products to consider include: No Miss nail polish and Sante nail polish.

Some of the big brands are also creating less toxic products. Revlon and Bourjois have some products without phthalates, for example.

Beauty Without Cruelty also does nail polish that is accounted as low in toxins by Skindeep. See their site for more examples. They analyse many common brands to seek out the best - and the worst - products.

Safer nail polish advice?

  • As ever, the advice is to read the labels carefully.
  • Buy brands from health and environment-conscious producers.
  • Dispose of used products carefully. Screw lids on tightly before disposal to prevent unnecessary leaks.
  • If you are pregnant, thinking of getting pregnant or breastfeeding then you should certainly try to avoid any products containing toluene, phthalates or formaldehyde.
  • Use the excellent Skindeep site to find out what is in any product you are considering using.
  • Also, take good care of your health. If you are fit and healthy you are likely to be less susceptible to the bad effects of chemicals in cosmeticsand your environment.

See here for more on healthy living and diet

Check your ingredients!

If you are thinking of buying nail polish it's best to always check the ingredients first.

Many nail polishes have huge lists of ingredients. It's good to be aware that some of the names may vary from company to company as there is no real standardisation yet in the cosmetics industry.

If you use the Skindeep database, you will see what a huge chemical load many of us take on when using cosmetics. Many of these have known detrimental effects to humans and the wider environment. Many others have large gaps in the knowledge base - we do not really know what they do. Caveat emptor (buyer beware!) as the Romans used to say.

Good nail care reading

Here are some good books on nail care to help you get the best from your nails in a natural and healthy way.

Rescue Your Nails Everything you need to know about natural nail care and simple salon techniques you can use at home.

The Beauty Workbook: A Commonsense Approach to Skin Care, Makeup, Hair, and Nails Great beauty tips and methods for busy people who don't want to devote their life to looking good but do want to get there!

Beautiful Hands and Nails, Naturally Simple techniques using old-fashioned natural ingredients - and best of all, it really works!

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