Is Nail Polish Toxic: The Toxic Truth About Nail Polish and Your Health

Is nail polish toxic? Nail polish bottles.
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Reading labels and checking for different ingredients when buying skincare or other cosmetic products has become a lifestyle for some people. Generally, people have become more conscious about what they use on their bodies or faces and what effect some ingredients can have on health.

But have you ever wondered – is nail polish toxic? Does your favorite nail polish shade come with hidden health risks?

Whether you like to do your nails or want to learn more about them, this article shows you how to have polished nails without any risks. Indeed, nail polishes contain some toxic ingredients, and you will see how to avoid them. 

A Brief History of Nail Polish

Long before nail polishes as we know them today, gel nails, and UV lamps, there were henna and kohl manicures. Having nail polish signified certain class status. Nail polish has been a part of the beauty industry for centuries, which is truly fascinating. 


Many studies show that nail polish first appears in Babylonia during 3200 B.C. Apparently, Babylonia warriors curled their hair and lacquered their nails with kohl before going to battle. 

The trend spread from India to China, where nails were used as a distinction of rank and dynasty. Higher classes used better ingredients: beeswax, Arabic gum, and egg whites on their nails. The ones that were ruling class wore vivid nail colors like red. 

Cleopatra used henna on her nails instead of her hand, which was custom. She preferred bloody red henna for her manicure. And while this is not proven, it is well known that women used henna to dye their nails in 5000 BC. 

First Nail Salon and Brands

The art of manicures started in France. Mary E. Cobb was the one that learned the technique, and they redeveloped the process. She brought the knowledge to the US, and in 1878, she opened her first nail salon. Moreover, her most significant contribution to the beauty industry was inventing the emery board. 

The birth of big brands that were concentrated on nails was in 1911. The brand Cutex launched just one product, and that was enough. Their product was an extract for softening cuticles around the nail bed. Since then, the brand has grown into an absolute beauty empire. 

Modern Nail Polish

It wasn’t until the 20th century that nail polish as we know it today came into existence. Michelle Menard was a makeup artist who wanted to create a glossy nail polish that imitated the shine of car colors. With time she succeeded in perfecting the formula and founded the cosmetic house today known as Revlon. They sold their nail polishes before becoming full makeup and beauty house. 

Women stopped wearing long nails during WWII since long factory shifts wouldn’t allow them. Rather than coloring their nails in bright and vivid shades, women were going for creamy shades, clear polish, or just buffing their nails. 

French manicure appeared around 1975 by American makeup artist and founder of Orly, Jeff Pink. He certainly wasn’t aware that this style would become timeless and that many women would wear it. It debuted on Paris runways and became an instant hit.  

Is Nail Polish Toxic and How Bad It Is for Your Health?

The body absorbs chemicals through skin, nails, and air. If we wonder which chemicals harm our health or if nail polish is toxic, the answer is not simple. Truthfully, if you apply skincare products with some critical ingredients daily, they are certainly worse for you than applying nail polish. 

Contact With Skin and Nail Barrier

Many people think that nail polish can’t pass the nail barrier and can’t be absorbed into the skin. However, you need to know that chemicals can pass through anything. It means that the toxins won’t enter in a significant concentration, but they will enter even through the nail barrier. Also, when you do your nails, be careful not to dye the skin around it. 

Breathing Nail Polish

If you do your nails regularly, you know how strong the smell is when you open the bottle. Some ingredients can cause specific problems when breathing in toluene, formaldehyde, and camphor. While only causing headaches, these ingredients are not too bad for your health, but being careful is crucial. 

What Toxic Ingredients Are in Nail Polish?

If you check out the labels of traditional nail polishes, you can notice many ingredients you almost know nothing about. Many are harmless, like butyl acetate, dimethyl adipate, or heptane. However, some can be harmful, if not so toxic. 

The so-called toxic trio of nail polish ingredients consists of toluene, dibutyl phthalate, and formaldehyde resin. The level of toxicity of these ingredients is still in debate, but the best you can do is to avoid them or find alternative nail polish brands. But first, a few words more about these ingredients. 

  • Toluene is used to suspend color evenly and serves as a paint thinner. This ingredient is mainly found in glues. Toluene can cause dizziness, eye, throat, or nose irritation, dry skin, numbness, etc. Since the liquid toluene is more dangerous, people inhaling it are more likely to get some of these symptoms. The effects of toluene are short, and usually, nail polishes contain lower levels of toluene. 
  • Dibutyl Phthalate is a plasticizer and is very commonly used as it makes the product more flexible. All the information for this ingredient comes from animal testing. The researchers claim that this ingredient can have long or short-term toxicity. Some side effects aren’t severe but can cause irritated eyes, skin, nose, and mouth. 
  • Formaldehyde is a common ingredient used in traditional nail polishes and nail hardeners. The purpose of this ingredient is to make nail polish more durable. It works by binding to the keratin on nails. However, this ingredient causes your nails to be brittle and dry after you remove your nail polish. This toxic chemical can also cause problems with the eyes, skin, and respiratory organs. Low levels are not problematic; a 0.5% formaldehyde concentration in nail polishes still means a lot.

What About Non-Toxic Nail Polish? 

After learning that exposure to certain ingredients in nail polish can be toxic, many brands turned to be non-toxic or 5, 7, 9, and 10-free. It means that these nail polishes are free of potentially toxic chemicals that can harm health, such as triphenyl phosphate, toluene, DBP, etc.  

  • 5-free contains no formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor
  • 7-free contains no formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene 
  • 9-free contains no formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, parabens, acetone
  • 10-free contains no formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, parabens, acetone, TPHP, TBHP, gluten 
  • 14-free contains no formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, parabens, TPHP, gluten, MEHQ/HQ, MIT, palm oil, animal-derived ingredients. 
  • 16-free contains no formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, parabens, acetone, TPHP, animal-derived ingredients, bisphenol A (BPA), sulfates, e-series glycol ethers, benzophenone 1, 2, nonylphenol ethoxylate

Water-based nail polish formulas are also popular. They incorporate non-synthetic pigments and aqueous acrylic polymers. These nail polishes are odorless but don’t last long on nails. 

Better Nail Polish Brands 

The good news is that many alternations and formula changes have been made in the last few years.

Many brands are now making toxic-free nail polishes that are equally beautiful on nails and last the same, but they tend to use better ingredients. 

Most of these nail polishes are 3-free, meaning they are free of formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, and toluene. Some of the most popular brands are: 

  • Zoya nail polish with more than 550 shades
  • Sundays nail polish that is 10-free
  • Aila nail polish that is even 14-free, created by a podiatric surgeon
  • Smith & Cult nail polish with 8-free formula and long-lasting shades
  • Piggy Paint nail polish that is “natural as mud” and has a water-based formula
  • Olive & June nail polish with 7-free formula
  • Pacifica Plant nail polish with 16-free formula and great color options
  • OROSA Pure Cover nail polish dries quickly, is 14-free, and is long-lasting 

Is Nail Polish Remover Toxic?

Side by side with nail polish comes polish remover. Is it toxic?

Specific options carry some health risks, but you can switch to natural ones with better formulations and safer ingredients. 

Some ingredients used in nail polish removers are isopropyl acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, and n-methyl-pyrrolidone. They are the most harmful ingredients that can cause some toxicity, and they are not safe for pregnant women and salon workers. 

Acetone-based nail polish removers are powerful for removing color but not the healthiest option. Inhaling acetone can cause nausea, increased heart rate, confusion or disorientation, etc. You can use acetone in highly ventilated areas while wearing a protective mask. 

When you soak nails in acetone, it can ultimately break the skin’s lipid layer, causing the skin to be brittle and very dry. Constant use of acetone-based nail polish remover can weaken the nails and dry the skin around them. 

Switching to natural options is safer but not always more efficient. Those removers are not as good as regular or acetone-based nail polish removers. They are indeed less drying and less harsh. In the last couple of years, the rise of vegan and cruelty-free products has made manufacturers think about making acetone-free options. 


Is Gel Nail Polish Toxic?

Gel nail polish contains various chemicals, which can cause irritations and pose health risks. Methacrylates and acrylates are two ingredients in gel nail polish that can cause skin irritations and dermatitis.

Is Dry Nail Polish Toxic?

Harmful ingredients stay in your body even when the nail polish dries. TPHP has been found in the body even after a few hours of using nail polish. Remember that all research has been done on animals, not humans.

Should I Stop Using Nail Polish?

With all these potentially harmful ingredients, it is your personal choice. On the other hand, switching to safer, toxin-free options is better than giving up altogether on having nice and polished nails.

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