When it comes to nail polish and nail art, women love to express themselves. But inhalation & dermal absorption of hormone-disrupting chemicals can also be a big problem. While conventional nail polish can leave your nails looking like pieces of hard candy, the contaminants you inhale are linked to chronic disease & cancers. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life! Fortunately, there are myriads of brands to choose from that offer safer nail polish. You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you topics like best & worst cosmetics, best & worst shampoo, & best & worst lotions, now join us for the best & worst non-toxic nail polishes.
Disclosure: This post was partially researched and fact-checked by Rebecca Elizabeth Sherrick Harks, RN, BSN. It contains affiliate links.
Conventional Nail Polish Sure Does Stink
No, I mean nail polish LITERALLY stinks. Inhalation of chemical contaminants is so bad that New York City has passed laws to protect workers in nail parlors. The “toxic trio” in many nail polish brands are full of toluene, dibutyl phthalate, and formaldehyde. These chemicals are linked to a host of health concerns. In fact, nail workers have elevated rates of death from Hodgkin’s disease, low birth-weight babies and of multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.
So, what’s a nail polish lover to do? You can make your own nail polish, which is overly complicated because…come on! OR you can get hip to the idea that many companies are beginning to launch cleaner, safer, and less toxic nail polish lines with colors you’d actually want to wear.
This investigation should help bring to light the availability of safer types of nail polish, learn to make informed decisions, and keep calm and carry on (with fabulous nails!).
The Toxins in Nail Polish Aren’t Really Regulated
Unfortunately, as we all regrettably know, nail polishes, like other cosmetics, are not really regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While technically under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), it’s regulated, under this law, nail products can pretty much do whatever they want. In other words, the cosmetic industry’s idea of regulation is more like putting toddlers in charge of snack time. Imagine if you gave a toddler the ability to eat whatever they wanted with no oversight, including candy & chips. There would be zero healthy requirements and it would be very messy. Very messy. Obviously.
Let’s be clear here, nail polishes – like most other cosmetics can go on the market with prior FDA testing and, by law nail polish sold on a retail basis to consumers – in stores or online – must also bear a list of ingredients, by order of predominance. And sometimes, they even do! Throughout this investigation, I noticed a number of brands that I had to specifically email for their ingredients, including GOAT (who I’ve yet to hear from). But amazingly, most of them promptly replied to us immediately, which was so different than our makeup investigation.
Another issue I continued running into is the names of the ingredients can be tricky. Did you happen to know, for example, that formaldehyde resin (which combines with other things to make formaldehyde) one of the 10 free ingredients (more on that below) can also be listed as the following:
- DMDM hydantoin,
- imidazolidinyl urea,
- diazolidinyl urea,
- polyoxymethylene urea,
- hydroxymethylglyconate and
- bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1-3-diol)
These chemicals, although similar, are very difficult for the average consumer to differentiate and track.
Are Non-Toxic Nail Polishes Really Non-Toxic?
Are non-toxic nail polishes really non-toxic? It seems like a straight forward question, but it’s not. There is no real concrete answer to this.
There has been a bit of industry intrigue as many of the investigations into nail polish and other personal care items has discovered (shocker!) that manufacturers don’t always say what’s really inside. And without any oversight from the FDA, nail polish manufacturers don’t face fines or legal troubles for incorrectly labeling a product’s ingredients. The agency does acknowledge that there are harmful ingredients in nail polish but says they are safe when used as directed (i.e. painted, not ingested).
How Safe Are The Chemicals Used in Nail Polish?
Well, it depends on your use (amount, regularity, type of nail polish). Through a recent study, Duke and EWG noted that while human nails are generally not absorbent, certain nail solvents or treatments used before nail polish application may wear down nail material and make it more permeable, allowing the body to absorb these toxic chemicals.
In fact, the chemical used to replace DBT, TPP (triphenyl phosphate) was found in that same Duke/EWG study was found to increase sharply in the consumer’s body after using nail polish. This is especially disturbing as TPP (an endocrine disruptor) containing nail polish is often used by children.
Shockingly, as of July, 2015, EWG, who runs a database of chemicals, products, and ingredients found that TPP/TPHP was listed in about half of the 3K nail polishes and treatments in their database. However, EWG expects that there are more companies that simply don’t disclose that it is in their product.
Should You Be Worried By Nail Polish Chemicals?
If you’re working in the nail business, yes, absolutely, you should be scared. If you get the occasional manicure or pedicure, let us offer you some background.
An expert spokesman for the American Chemical Society, Richard Sachleben points out a few things for us. To date, the research on TPP suggests that TPP is a low-priority chemical as both chronic and acute toxicity amounts to some mild irritation. However, the most disturbing thing about the chemical is its potential to interfere with hormones.
As for now, all the studies concerning TPP haven’t determined if higher levels of TPP are actually harmful to humans – most especially how TPP can affect our hormones, as most has been done on laboratory animals. As of today, these animal studies only show correlation – not causation – in humans.
Tired of hearing this excuse over and over again, independent scientists have started testing chemicals on humans to start proving causations. FDA recently allowed testing toxic chemicals on humans directly in 2018. This is how we know that BPA could be linked to type 2 diabetes. The first human trial was done on BPA recently, however the group was small and patients were not pregnant, the outcome was statistically significant enough to encourage more research.
Should You Paint Your Nails During Pregnancy?
Pregnancy is not the time to take chances on what is toxic and what is not. Dr. Andrew Healy at Bayside Medical Center reminds us that things placed on your skin (lotions, nail polish, bronzers) has a potential for absorption into the bloodstream, and may be absorbed in the placenta. So what does the good doctor say?
Phthalates are found in nail products and have been studied for the potential risk of causing birth defects. The FDA’s conclusion? The FDA feels that the available data right this moment hasn’t shown any association between the use of phthalates in cosmetics and a human health risk. This is because most studies have been done on animals, and not humans. However, a growing amount of scientists agree that phthalates could be problematic to pregnant women, including IVF organizations.
So, talk to your doctor about this before you use nail polish during pregnancy.
The Chemicals Inside Nail Polish–What’s That All About?
In the 2000s, nail polish manufacturers started promoting “3-Free” nail polish products, phasing out three widely publicized toxic chemicals: toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate (DnBP), known spiffily as the Toxic Trio. That sounds awesome, right? And it very well may be awesome. The problem is that some of these toxic chemicals replacing the known toxic chemicals are just as bad for you, although their toxicity may not have been studied closely.
This trend, this game of chemical Wack-A-Mole can be misleading and downright dangerous. For example, DnBP has often been replaced by another endocrine-disrupting plasticizer, triphenyl phosphate (TPHP); though it’s unclear whether TPHP was known at the time to be toxic.
Sorry for the toxic alphabet soup, but stay with us!
To reassure consumers in a big way, companies everywhere began to label their products as #-Free in order to boost confidence in their products. This was done similarly with gluten-free products: a good majority of things labeled “gluten free” never actually contained any gluten whatsoever. Whether or not the chemical composition has been alerted is unclear, just as we don’t know if the chemicals replacing the toxic ones are any safer for you.
This brings us to the #-Free Movement.
Free to Be You And Me: Nail Polish Version
If you’ve been simply browsing the nail polish aisles in the store, you’re probably going to notice a number of key words come up:
- all natural
These are marketing terms that don’t have any meaning behind them. You see them used religiously with product that we would consider “green-washing.” So check the ingredients on the back label before you are swayed by those nice words and numbers.
Getting “Natural” Nail Polish
Looking for a natural nail polish is not an easy feat. Chances are you’ve grabbed the polish of your dreams at the salon without realizing it’s filled with harsh chemicals. Natural alternatives do exist.
“Safe” polishes are broken down into categories from “three-free” to “ten-free,” referring to the number of chemicals they are free from, however, these claims are not always accurate. There are no standards beyond the 3-free “toxic trio” of the 3-Free chemicals to avoid.
Luckily for us, we’re seeing a lot of newer companies that have begun to sell less toxic nail polish products to us – and you’ll be surprised by a couple of the industry giants who’ve also begun to put their money into developing safer and safer nail polishes, topcoats, and polish removers.
3-Free Nail Polish And Top Coats
Some marketing guru probably felt the sweat of those pioneers into the wild world of cosmetics and try to fix the problems they had brought up. It began by replacing three known toxic materials in nail polish – the aptly named – “toxic trio.”
Spurred on by the success of the 3 -free manicure, nail companies quickly raced to help consumers feel safer: soon you had the 5-free, the 7-free, the 8-free, the 9-free, and the somewhat nebulous 10-free (this one has a ton of different ingredients said to have removed – but the definition you’ll find is based on whomever or whatever company is telling you about it). Hell, I even saw a 16-free when I was doing my research and I have no idea what that means.
3 Free Nail Polishes are free from the following:
Toluene: is a petroleum-based solvent linked to possible short-term problems like headaches, confusion, fatigue, and eye, nose and throat irritation; and well as long-term health impacts like kidney and liver damage, reproductive harm, and developmental toxicity.
Other names you might see instead of toluene:
Dibutyl Phthalate: The chemical has been shown to impair the hormonal development of male fetuses and in some cases cause early-onset menopause. DBT is mainly in nail products as a solvent for dyes and as a plasticizer that prevents nail polishes from becoming brittle.Tb
Other names you might see:
- 1,2-Benzeneducarbolxylic Acid
- Dibutyl Ester
- Buthyl Phalate
- 1,2 Benezenedcarboxylic Acid
5-Free Nail Polish And Top Coats
As you might have guessed from the number, this means that 5-free polishes are created without formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, plus camphor and formaldehyde resin.
So what’s the deal with these two?
Camphor: Recently Camphor has been shown to cause severe skin reactions and when inhaled can cause nausea, dizziness, and headaches. Camphor has largely been used for denaturant, external analgesic, fragrance ingredient, plasticizer, masking, and plasticiser.
Other names you might see:
- Bicyclo Heptan-2-One
- 1,7,7-Trimethyl- Camphor
- DL-Bornana – n2-One
- Dl – Camphor
- Gum Camphor
Formaldehyde resin: Formaldehyde resin is not directly linked to cancer like formaldehyde but it has been noted to cause dermatitis in patients.
You may see it listed as:
- DMDM hydantoin
- Imidazolidinyl urea,
- Diazolidinyl urea
- Polyoxymethylene urea
- Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1-3-diol)
7-Free Nail Polish And Top Coats
Seven-free polishes are created without the five chemicals, plus xylene and triphenyl phosphate.
Other names include:
- Dimethyl Benzene
- Dimethyl –
- Dimethyl- Benzene
- Total Xylene(s)
Triphenyl Phosphate: The chemical can wreak havoc on your hormones and is potentially toxic to liver cells. The chemical works to prevent nail polish from becoming brittle but has been shown to impair the hormonal development of male fetuses and in some cases cause early-onset menopause. Triphenyl phosphate has been used widely as a flame retardant and plasticizer.
Other names you might see:
- Phosphoric Acid
- Triphenyl Ester
9-Free Nail Polish And Top Coats
9-free contains no formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, parabens, or acetone.
Ethyl Tosylamide: This chemical can cause severe allergic reactions and – in very extreme cases – cause liver damage.
Other names you might see on the packaging:
- Nethyl 2 Methyl
- N-Ethyl Tolulenesulfaonmide
- N-Ethyltoluline – 2 – Sulphonamide
Parabens, one of our arch nemeses, makes the 9-free list. Parabens are hormone disruptors that mimic estrogen in the body. They’re linked to breast cancer AND some parabens are linked to reproductive and developmental harm.
Read labels for ingredients ending with –paraben, including:
Acetone: Acetone is used to make plastic, fibers, drugs, and other chemicals. It is also used to dissolve other substances.
And here are the other names acetone goes by:
- Dimethyl Ketone
10-Free Nail Polish And Top Coats
10 Free is probably the number that’s hardest to quite pinpoint. Some places say it’s without animal products (so it’s vegan), others say that 10-free has no gluten. Still, others claim that 10-free means no fragrances. Others claim it means no hydroquinone monomethyl ether or Methylisothiazolinone. Other brands claim that that ingredient is tert-butyl hydroperoxide. So let’s examine them all:
Animal By-Products in nail polish means that the product cannot be vegan. So how do you become vegan-friendly? You avoid the following in your production of nail polish:
- Carmine, is frequently used as a red pigment in nail polish and lipsticks, is derived from the shells of the female Cochineal insect
- Guanine, is used in nail polish to give a shimmery look and is made of a crystalline material obtained from fish scales
- Oleic Acid, This animal fat is often derived from tallow, fat, and oils from animals and is often used in nail polish.
- Perfumes – the exact ingredients in perfumes are not required to be disclosed in most countries as they’re considered to be proprietary; animal-derived ingredients used to make perfumes include Musk oil (dried secretion painfully obtained from musk deer, beaver, muskrat, civet cat, and otter genitals), shark liver oil and Ambergris (derived from whale intestines).
- It may be labeled as “hydrolyzed wheat protein” on the bottle.
Fragrance (Natural or Not) – Fragrance, as we now know, is a combination of a ton of different chemicals (sometimes over 100!), none of them are required to be listed upon the bottle, which is quite dangerous as personal care items are often absorbed by the skin. The porous nature of our skin means that some of these fragrances can cross over into the blood, which goes, as we all know, EVERYWHERE in the body. Depending upon what is in this fragrance, some of these ingredients can be allergens, hormone disruptors, carcinogens, and neurotoxins (this is in no way a complete list of things that may be caused by fragrance. When you see fragrance listed as an ingredient, run for the hills. And “natural fragrances” are equally dangerous.
tert-Butyl Hydroperoxide, is a suspected endocrine disruptor that has been demonstrated to be easily absorbed into the bloodstream following nail polish application. As a hormone disruptor, TBHP may have acute toxicity.
- T-Butyl Hydroperoxide
- tert – Butylhydroperoxide
Hydroquinone Monomethyl Ether May cause some adverse effects on human health. It is harmful if swallowed, causes skin irritation and eye irritation, long term use may damage your skin pigment cells.
Other names may include:
Methylisothiazolinone these common preservatives are found in many liquid personal care products, and have been linked to lung toxicity, allergic reactions and possible neurotoxicity.
Other names may include:
- 2-Methyl-3(2H)- Isothaiazalone
- 2-methyl-2H-isothiazol – 3-One
- 2-methyl- 3(2H) Isothiazolon
- 2-methyl-4-isothiazolin- 3 – One
- 2-methyl -3(2H) Isothiazolone
- 2 Methyl
- Methylchloroisothiazolineone 225
- Methylisothiazolinione Solution
What About 12, 14, 16-Free Nail Products?
So, wait. Why did you stop at 10-free? I’ve seen all kinds of brands that have over 10-free.
Here’s the thing, the qualifications for being 10-Free are already dealing with different answers to what that last ingredient is. The farther up you go? The more cloudy the definition becomes. Basically, there isn’t a way for us to do that cause it’s lots of marketing.
Mamavation Investigation on Nail Polish & Top Coats
When writing this post, we looked into the ingredients of each of the 100+ polishes and top coats, examined their claims, looked at their #-Free, and read reviews about most products that we could find. We created our own version of “free-from” categories and are ranking nail polish brands against that. We recommend you pick from whatever category makes you most comfortable and has the colors you need. The following brands are categorized into 0 free, 3 free, 5 free, 7 free, 9 free, & 11 free.
0-Free Nail Polish + Top Coats:
This category exists when no claims of being free of at least the Toxic Trio: formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate have been made or the ingredients for products are not easily found (even via emails), or no claims are made about being #Free
- Essie Gel Couture Platinum-Grade Finish Top Coat (no claims about being #Free)
- GOAT Nail Polish + Top/Base Coat – (No ingredients listed + no way to contact the company)
- Jamberry Top Coat (no claims of #Free)
- Kleencolor Nail Polish + Kleencolor Top Coat Manicure (no claims of being #free of anything)
- QTICA Extending Top Coat (no #free claims)
- Suncoat Water-Based Nail Polish + Top Coat (surprisingly, no claims about being #Free)
3-Free Nail Polishes + Top Coats
Many of these companies are the early-adopters of changing the ingredients in nail polish; starting first with the Toxic Trio (formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalate). The claims next to each product are lifted from the website and not by us. If there is no blurb next to the product, it’s because we couldn’t locate anything that had been stated by the company.
- Essie Gel Couture Nail Polish
- Karma Organic Natural Nail Polish – (Non-Toxic Nail Art, Vegan and Cruelty-Free Nail Paint. Gluten Free. Our polish is suitable for EVERYONE including pregnant women, children of every age and allergy sufferers.)
- Keeki Nail Polish (100% biodegradable formula is completely non-toxic, gluten-free)
- Keeki Top Coat (100% biodegradable formula is completely non-toxic, gluten-free)
- Mineral Fusion Nail Polish (Vegan – Cruelty Free)
- Mineral Fusion Gel Top Coat (Vegan, Cruelty-Free)
- NARS Nail Polish
- Nars Base Coat
- OPI Nail Polish (Gluten-Free)
- OPI Nail Lacquer Top Coat
- Revlon Color Stay Gel
- Revlon Nail Polish Enamel (Gluten-Free)
- Revlon Revlon Brilliant Strength Nail Enamel
- RGB Top Coat
- Sally Hanson Hard as Nails Xtreme Wear Polish
- Sally Hanson Insta-Dry
- Sally Hanson Miracle Gel Top Coat
- Spa Ritual Gold Top Coat
- Wet N Wild Shine Nail Color (Gluten-Free)
- Wet N Wild Top Coat
- Zoya Armour Top Coat (Vegan-Friendly)
5-Free Nail Polishes and Top Coats
In this category, you’ll find brands that do not have formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, or toluene AS WELL AS free of camphor and formaldehyde resin. All statements next to nail polishes come from the company themselves.
- Aila Nail Laquer
- BeneYOU, LLC Nail Laquers (Formerly Jamberry)
- Bliss Genius Nail Polish
- Côte Travel Top & Base Coat (Vegan)
- Kure Bazarr
- Priti NYC 2-in-1 Top & Base Coat Vegan Nail Treatment (vegan, cruelty free, & gluten free)
- Revlon Multi-Care Base + Top Coat
- RGB Nail Polish
- Sienna Byron Bay Breathable Nail Polish (Vegan and Cruelty-Free Accredited (CCF Australia), Water Permeable & Breathable Nail Polish)
- Sienna Byron Bay Lightening Top Coat
- Côte Travel Top & Base Coat (Vegan)
7-Free Nail Polishes and Top Coats
Now we’re getting to the good stuff! 7-free nail products do not have formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, toluene, camphor, and formaldehyde resin and no xylene and triphenyl phosphate.
- Alia Better Than Gel Top Coat (Made in the US, Cruelty-free, Gluten-free, Vegan)
- BeneYOU Nail Polish (Safe for kids! Gluten-free, cruelty-free, vegan-friendly, quick-dry)
- Dazzle Dry Top Coat (Manufactured in the U.S. Verifies each ingredient for quality and purity, and ensure that our entire line is free from animal by-products, animal testing, and harmful chemicals)
- Deborah Lipman Nail Gel Polish (Gluten-Free)
- Deborah Lippmann Addicted To Speed Ultra Quick-Dry Top Coat
- ella+mila Nail Polish, ELITE Collection (Vegan & Animal cruelty-free. Made in the USA . ella+mila polishes are certified by PETA!)
- ella+mila Nail Care, Quick Dry Top Coat – In a Rush (USA Made, Peta Cerfified)
- Habit Cosmetics Nail Polish (Non-toxic, made with Myrrh. PETA-certified as vegan and cruelty-free, gluten-free. Sustainably packaged with a bamboo cap, recycled plastic inner cap, recycled plastic brush and FSC-certified paperboard boxes)
- Habit Top Coat (nontoxic, vegan)
- ILNP (Totally Safe!)
- Karma Organic Gel Finish Top Coat (Non-Toxic Vegan & Cruelty-Free)
- Lauren B. Beauty (Each formula is non-toxic, eco- and vegan-friendly. Made in the US)
- Lauren B Beauty Quick Dry Top Coat (Vegan)
- Liseux Nail Polish (Our polish is vegan and not tested on animals)
- Pacifica Nail Polish
- Pacifica 7 Free Top & Base Coat
- Piggy Paint (per manufacturer, not Mamavation, for use in children, pregnancy, and nursing moms. 100% Chemical Free & eco-friendly. Cruelty-free + Vegan + Made in USA)
- Piggy Paint Top Coat (Cruelty-free + Vegan + Made in USA. Disclaimer time: this is information per manufacturer, not Mamavation: Kid friendly, pregnancy safe; you can rest assured that this water-based polish is safe for pregnant & nursing moms, for use on babies, toddlers and young children)
- Static Nails Liquid Glass Lacquer (Made in the US, Vegan, Cruelty-Free)
- Static Nails Liquid Glass Lacquer Top Coat (Made in the US, Vegan, Cruelty-Free)
- Tenoverten The Shield Top Coat (cruelty-free + vegan)
9-Free Nail Polishes and Top Coats
9-Free nail polishes and top coats feature no formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, parabens, or acetone.
- Dazzle Dry Nail Polish
- Defy & Inspire™ Nail Polish (found at Target, it is cruelty-free and clean)
- Defy & Inspire™ Nail Polish Over The Top (found at Target. cruelty-free + clean)
- Spella 9 Free Nail Polish
10-Free Nail Polishes and Top Coats:
10-Free is probably the number that’s hardest to quite pinpoint. Some places say it’s without animal products (so it’s vegan), others say that 10-free has no gluten. Still others claim that 10-free means no fragrances. And others claim that the ingredient is tert-butyl hydroperoxide. Others claim it means no hydroquinnine monomethyl ether or methylisothiazolinone.
- 100% Pure Nail Polish (Vegan + no cruelty)
- 100% Pure Nail Polish Top Coat (Vegan + No Cruelty)
- Acquarella (many reports that it peels off easily, Gluten-Free, Water-Based)
- Emma Beauty Nail Polish 12-Free formula + PETA-Certified + cruelty-free + vegan)
- Emma Beauty Quickie Top Coat, Fast Dry Nail Polish
- Gabriel Cosmetics Nail Polish Top Coat
- Honeybee Gardens Nail Polish (12-Free – Vegan, non GMO, Earthy Friendly)
- Honeybee Gardens Endure Primer Sealer for Nails
- JINsoon Strengthening Base Power Coat Nail Lacquer (chip-proof, fast-drying, vegan-friendly)
- JINsoon Nail Lacquer (chip-proof, fast-drying, vegan-friendly)
- Kure Bazaar Dry Finish Top Coat
- LVX Nail Lacquer (10-Toxin Free, Cruelty-Free & Vegan Formulated & Produced in the USA)
- LVX Jet Set Top Coat
- Orly Breathable Nail Lacquers (EU standards)
- ORLY Breathable Top Coat (EU Standards)
- Orosa Pure Color Nail Paint (Cruelty-free + Vegan + Gluten-free + 14 Free)
- Poofy Organics Nail Polish (this polish is not organic)
- Poofy Organics 2 in 1 Base/Topcoat (Manufacturers state that this SAFE for pregnant women.This polish is not organic)
- Priti NYC Polish (always 10-free, vegan, cruelty and gluten-free. Proudly made in the USA)
- Rooted Woman Nail Polish (handmade, non-toxic, gluten-free vegan-friendly nail polishes, Rooted Woman champions self-care. The polish is made in small batches.)
- Rooted Woman Covered Top Coat (handmade, non-toxic, gluten-free vegan-friendly nail polishes, Rooted Woman champions self-care. The polish is made in small batches.)
- Sally Hanson Good, Kind, Pure (16-Free)
- SpaRitual (Our nail lacquers are vegan, cruelty-free & 12 Free)
- Sundays 10-Free, Nontoxic Nail Polish (cruelty-free vegan 10-free non-toxic bottle shape and brush is optimized for precise and quick application)
- Sundays Protective Top Coat (10 Free, Nontoxic, Vegan & Cruelty-free)