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Scanning the ingredients list of things you plan to put into your body might be second nature at the grocery store. You might even peruse the labels on skin care products before you click “add to cart.”
But what about the products you’re using for your nails? Does your favorite coral polish or that oh-so stylish gel nail design come with hidden health risks? And if so, how serious are we talking?
In an effort to better understand the potential risks of nail polish, and whether formulas that are marketed as “X-free” are really any better, we looked at the latest research and spoke with industry experts.
Whether you decide the pay-off is worth the risk, starting from a place of knowledge is always a good idea. Read on for the truth about non-toxic nail polish, plus the very best alternative for put-together nails.
“People need to understand that the nail plate is porous, not hard,” says Mary Lennon, the co-founder of Côte. “That means anything you paint onto your nails will soak into your bloodstream and can affect you.”
Even more permeable is the skin around your nails. And then there are the fumes you inhale every time you step into a nail salon or bust out your own polishes and removers.
Add it all up, and it’s clear that the ingredients in your nail polish (and nail polish removers) are absolutely making their way into your body.
What exactly those ingredients are — and whether they’re safe — is another story entirely.
The landscape of nail polish can be challenging to navigate at best.
Let’s be clear that “nail polish is essentially paint,” says Suzanne Shade, the founder of Bare Hands, a polish-free method of natural nail care.
“If you think of it in terms of household waste, all paints (liquid or dried) are classified as toxic substances and cannot be safely put in public landfills — regardless of being labeled ‘non-toxic,’” Shade continues.
And for the record, while many nail polish manufacturers tend to keep their formulas top secret, the ingredients in just about every bottle of polish can be broadly categorized into:
- film-forming agents
- coloring agents
Then there are the issues of labeling and marketing claims.
“Nail polish formulation is tricky, and, sometimes, the packaging or marketing around a formula can be misleading,” says Olivia Van Iderstine, the vice president of content and creative at Olive & June.
Worse, vague references to being “clean,” “non-toxic,” or free of 3, 5, 7, 10, or even 15 worrisome ingredients are largely unregulated. This means nail polish companies are essentially free to say what they want.
Additionally, it’s important to know that neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) approves nail polishes before they come to market.
The only exception that requires FDA approval is
- The product is safe when used as labeled. However, it’s up to manufacturers to determine whether their products are safe. The FDA doesn’t require any particular safety testing.
- The product is labeled appropriately. This includes having ingredient labels on polishes sold to consumers. However, polishes available in nail salons only aren’t required to have ingredient lists.
- The ingredients are used appropriately. That means the way the ingredients are used don’t cause the finished product to be “adulterated or misbranded” according to the laws the FDA enforces.
Still, if you have a hard time pronouncing the ingredients on your polish, let alone understanding what they are, you aren’t the only one.
“Even those who take the time to research products and their ingredients may not be able to find what is actually in the bottle they are researching,” explains Autumn Blum, a cosmetic chemist and the formulator and CEO of Stream2Sea, a personal care company committed to eco-friendly products.
“Certain ingredients, like ‘fragrance,’ can hide up to 3,000 different chemicals under that label, many of which are questionable for humans and can be lethal for aquatic life,” Blum says.
The upshot? The nail polish industry has very little regulation or enforcement. That means it all comes down to conscientiousness on the part of the consumer.
Now that you’re side-eyeing your manicure, let’s talk about the world of “3-Free” polishes.
Roughly 15 years ago, manufacturers launched splashy campaigns promoting the fact that they were no longer using three specific solvents and plasticizers in their formulas:
- toluene, a neurotoxin and skin irritant
- formaldehyde, a known carcinogen that may also cause reproductive harm
- dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which has limited evidence for negative effects in humans, but has been linked to reproductive and developmental harm in animals
So, the fact that 3-Free nail polish is free of these chemicals makes it healthier, right? Not necessarily.
3-Free doesn’t mean toxin-free
In many cases, toluene, formaldehyde, and DBP were swapped for chemicals that, at best, aren’t particularly well studied at this point, and at worst, aren’t much of an improvement.
“The challenge is that none of the ‘swaps’ for plasticizers or binding agents have been studied,” Shade says. “So, unfortunately, a lot of folks assume a certain level of safety that just hasn’t yet been proven.”
Fun fact: It’s also used as a flame retardant.
Another common ingredient in many formulas on the shelves of nail salons and stores today, including many “X-Free” options, is benzophenone-1. According to Blum, that’s pretty concerning.
“Benzophenone is classified as a known toxicant by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). It’s a known endocrine disruptor and allergen.”
Blum explains that benzophenone-3 is also known as oxybenzone. Yes, it’s the very ingredient “currently under mass scrutiny within the chemical sunscreen industry,” Blum says.
Not only has it shown to harm coral larvae, which is the issue in the sunscreen world, but Blum says the chemical has also been associated with:
- Hirschsprung’s disease
- blocking testosterone and sperm development
- increasing estrogen in mammals
“It does a fantastic job preventing color from fading, but is certainly not worth the health and environmental impact in my opinion,” Blum says.
Of course, not every nail polish company is doing things the same way. In fact, some manufacturers have taken the “X-free” movement even further.
Over the last decade and change, it’s snowballed from three to five to seven to ten or more ingredients willfully being excluded for health and safety considerations.
Olive & June is one company with a laser focus on safety.
“Beautiful nails that won’t chip are important, but not at the cost of your health and safety,” Van Iderstine says. “Some of the ingredients we excluded are considered carcinogenic, while others can cause severe irritation, or worse.”
Instead of tweaking existing formulas, the company essentially started over.
“When we set out to make our polish, we weren’t interested in using an existing formula and putting a fancy new label on it,” says Van Iderstine. “We spent almost 2 years developing Olive & June polish, and it was worth every reformulation.”
Keep in mind that even with brands holding their formulations to the most rigorous standards, there are still a lot of unknowns.
“It’s still a reality that none of the current swaps for the most harmful ingredients have been tested for safety,” Blum says, “so we really don’t know to what extent they are toxic either. Unfortunately, that leaves us with more questions than answers.”
If you’re wary of using any kind of polish on your nails, you aren’t alone.
But forgoing the polish doesn’t mean giving up on pretty, put-together nails. The Dry Gloss Manicure — a natural nail care protocol that supports the health of the nails and skin — is gaining traction, and it’s not hard to see why.
Simple tools, like The Polisher and ultra-rich cuticle oil, are designed to leave a glossy nail and hydrated cuticles for a chic effect.
Aesthetics entirely aside, there’s a huge benefit to naked nails: The fingernail has been called a window to health, and it’s true.
No one is saying you need to give up nail polish forever. Like many things, much of it comes down to minimizing risk and following a few best practices.
If you still like the idea of painting your nails, here are a few tips to stay as safe as possible.
Make a point of reading ingredients
But don’t stop there — look them up! The Environmental Working Group maintains a robust database, and it’s quick and easy to plug in an ingredient or specific polish for a rundown on any concerns. That’s really the best way to avoid the most harmful ingredients.
Remember, “the front of the package can be, and often is, misleading, but the ingredients can tell a very different story,” Blum says.
Be mindful of marketing copy
Many nail polish brands are careful to avoid buzzy, but largely meaningless, language like “clean” and “natural” without backing up exactly what they mean. In some cases, it’s actually more common for the media to use those labels in describing certain brands.
Brands promoting their “Free” formulations tend to be very upfront about what they’re excluding and why, so take the time to read about it.
Nails don’t actually need to “breathe,” but taking breaks from manicures and polish is still recommended.
Ingredients in even the best formulas, along with some of the more involved processes (think gel and dip manicures) can dry out the keratin layers in your nails, making way for
A good rule of thumb is to go bare for at least a week every 2 months.
Choose with care
Look for brands that are transparent about their formulations and approaches.
It’s easy to assume that anything we can buy has been vetted for safety. But that ballet slipper-pink polish may not be as innocent as you think. At this point, we just don’t know.
Make a point of looking past “X-Free” promises to what’s really in a polish, and consider reframing your idea of “done” nails. You might find a glossy natural look as put-together as polish, without the potential health risks.