Non-Toxic Nail Polish Guide

What potential health hazards are lurking in your nail polish?

| July 11th, 2011
Non-Toxic Nail Polish Guide

When it comes to beauty products, few things are so obviously full of chemicals than nail polish and remover.

“Who hasn’t walked into a nail salon and been overcome by the stinky punch of undeniable chemicals?” says Jenna Hipp, a “green” celebrity nail stylist in Hollywood, California. “You think to yourself: ‘This can’t good.’ And you’re right.” 

It’s not just toxic fumes that should raise concern. It's the ingredients in your nail polish that are proven to be harmful. “Between the nail, cuticle and the surrounding skin, it’s inevitable that what goes on your nails is absorbed through your blood stream,” says Deborah Burnes, founder and CEO of Sumbody natural beauty line and author of “Look Great, Live Green.” 

Here are eight terms to brush up on before your next nail appointment. 

MORE: Non-Toxic Nail Polishes - Our Favorite Brands

“3-Free” = no formaldehyde, toluene or dibutyl phthalate
is the F-word of manicures—it’s not necessary to use and if it is in your polish, listen up, because there could be serious repercussions. This colorless and strong-smelling gas is not only used in embalming (eek!), it can also be found in countless common household items, including glue, plywood, adhesives and yes, even as a hardener and preservative in nail polish. Oh, and last but not least: It’s a proven carcinogen. In fact, as of June 10, 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services updated its National Toxicology Program Report on Carcinogens (RoC) to state that formaldehyde is “known to be a human carcinogen,” replacing the previous and more ambiguous “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

Shop Our Favorite Nail & Hand Products, From BeautySage.com


Dibutyl phthalate (aka DBP) is a tongue-twister of a name (we dare you—say it three times fast!) for a plasticizer that reduces brittleness and cracking, improving the lasting power of nail lacquer. You might recognize it as referred to as just plain phthalates in other cosmetics. The not-so-complicated downsides: It's linked to cancer in lab animals, as well as suspected of developmental and fertility concerns in humans, so it’s especially dangerous for pregnant women, says Hipp.

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Toluene helps suspend paint throughout the bottle—which means you don’t have to shake it up very often—plus it gives polish it’s smooth texture, just like it does for other liquids. (Um, as 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. The bottom line: Polish may separate quicker when it’s toluene-free, so every few weeks you might have to put some muscle into it and shake things up a bit. (We think you can handle that.)

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