The Toxins in Your Nail Polish—and How to Avoid Them

By Dana Poblete
nail polish
credit: Unsplash

Thank goodness clean, green skin care is having a huge moment—no one should feel like slathering toxic ingredients on their skin is the only option. But ask yourself this question: are you a little more lenient when it comes to your mani-pedi habit? If the answer is yes, no judgment. But it is high time to reconsider what you're painting on your precious fingers. After all, nails can show a lot about your health—from brittleness potentially signaling hypothyroidism to a concave shape signaling possible anemia—so they should never be taken for granted.

The harsh truth is that conventional, popular nail products may contain some very harmful chemicals; and they can leach in through the nails and cuticles as well as by inhalation. A 2015 study found that one ingredient, triphenyl phosphate, a suspected endocrine disrupter, was in all subjects' bodies just 10 to 14 hours after painting their nails. Yup, that fast. Yikes!

The Worst Offenders

Remember that noxious chemical from high school biology lab that was used to embalm frog corpses for dissection day? That was formaldehyde, and it used to be a pretty common nail polish ingredient. Most likely, the chemical made you want to vomit in class, and actually, your sense of smell had it right—formaldehyde is known to be carcinogenic and may also lead to asthma, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity, according to Dr. Dana Stern, a board-certified dermatologist specializing in nails.

Two of the other worst chemicals in nail products are toluene (a petrochemical that is harmful to the respiratory system, can cause birth defects, and is possibly carcinogenic) and phthalates (endocrine disrupters that can also cause birth defects). At the very least, polishes should be free of these terrible three; even budget brands like Wet 'n' Wild respect that. But Dr. Dana warns that there's a surprising number of formulas that still use these chemicals. The only way to really be sure is to always look for at least "three-free" on the label.

Three-free nail polishes were generally considered safe enough for a while, but five-free and seven-free products have raised the bar for nontoxic nail care. That's because plenty of other chemicals, including the aforementioned triphenyl phosphate as well as xylene, are pretty gnarly, too. Five-free means no formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde resin, or camphor. Seven-free means none of the above, and no ethyl tosylamide or xylene, either. But the gold standard is the elusive nine-free formula, which cuts out all of it along with triphenyl phosphate and parabens.

Staying Power

Now the burning question that's made many women less than eager to make the switch: do nontoxic nail polishes actually last? Dr. Dana admits, "Polish wear can suffer when you remove the chemicals. Creating a formula that is free of the questionable ingredients and still performs—that's a big challenge! Fortunately, I love a challenge. It took me six years to [develop] our nail color, Hydrating Base, and Quick Dry Top Coat, all of which are nine-free and high-performance."

Dr. Dana is one of the vanguards leading the charge in the nontoxic nail polish revolution, and she's not alone. "Beauty companies are finally beginning to innovate in order to create formulas that are safer, don't contain known toxins, and still give you the salon-quality result." Lines from Pacifica, LVX, Deborah Lippmann, and côte all carry the seven-free stamp of approval.

Nail Polish Removers

Don't forget about nail polish remover. While acetone is relatively low in toxicity, it's also known to make nails thinner and weaker. No need for that. For a nourishing, natural alternative, AILA's 3-in-1 Nail Color Remover and Nail and Cuticle Treatment is a godsend.

So, if you want cute nails without the cancer, hormonal imbalances, or reproductive issues, now you know: you've got options, girl.