Painting finger and toe nails is a beauty practice that began in China in 3000 BC. Nail lacquers were originally made from a blend of natural substances like vegetable dyes, gum Arabic, beeswax, egg whites, and gelatin.
These days, for the sake of thickening agents, adhesive qualities, quickness in drying, paint sheens, bright hues, and color fastness, nail polish formulas are far from natural. It’s not terribly shocking that the unique and heady odors emitted during a nail painting session are a mess of hazardous chemicals.
Chemicals Found In Conventional Nail Polish:
Many popular nail polish brands contain:
Toluene – Added to nail polish to adhere and create a smooth finish on the nail, toluene has a strong odor most commonly associated with paint thinner. Inhaling it can cause headaches and dizziness in the short-term, but repeated exposures can result in damage to the nervous system and cognitive function. Pregnant women are well-advised to avoid products containing toluene since breathing it can cause birth defects.
Formaldehyde – A known human carcinogen, formaldehyde is found in an array of consumer products, including nail polish. Used as a nail hardener in this instance, it is a strong-smelling gas that can be inhaled and absorbed through the skin. Repeated exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to the development of leukemia; other studies on this chemical have shown that it can initiate and promote the growth of tumors.
Dibutyl phthalate – Used a plasticizer to prevent nail polish from becoming brittle, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is a man-made chemical that can irritate the eyes and lungs. Animal studies have shown that DBP can cause reproductive problems and interfere with hormone function. Although it is not a mutagen, it can react with other substances to cause genetic mutations.
Triphenyl phosphate – A fire-retardant and plasticizer, triphenyl phosphate (TPhP) is used in nail polish to make it more flexible and durable. Though more research is needed on the physiological effects of TPhP, it is a suspected endocrine disruptor. Its effect on animals has shown it can interfere with reproductive and developmental processes, even at low doses.
6 of the Best Non-Toxic Nail Polish Brands:
You don’t need to inhale harsh chemicals in order to have beautiful nails! Thankfully there are much safer options available today: water-based and solvent-based nail paints.
While water-based nail varnish is odorless and gentle on your nails, one caveat is that they typically won’t wear as long as conventional nail polish. The wear-time can be extended by properly prepping nails and allowing it several hours to fully cure. Solvent nail polish, on the other hand, is composed of organic compounds that do emit an odor, but these types tend to be more durable and quicker to harden.
Here are six of the best (and safest) brands:
Free of petrochemicals, formaldehyde, phthalates, and other nasty toxins, the Acquarella formula is entirely water based and emits practically no odor. Because it’s not your traditional nail polish, a long-lasting and chip-free manicure requires prepping nails by first buffing them to help the polish adhere to the nail. It doesn’t need a base or top coat, just two thin coats. Although it dries quickly, allow the paint to cure for at least six hours (try applying it just before bed) and avoid hand-heavy tasks for the first 24 hours. Available in 42 bright and neutral colors, Acquarella also carries their own non-toxic nail polish remover and nail strengthening conditioner.
2. ella + mila
With more than 100 awesome colors to choose from, nail polish by ella + mila offers high-quality varnish sans questionable chemicals. Dubbed “7-free”, ella + mila products won’t contain formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, TPhP, camphor, xylene, or formaldehyde resin. It’s also incredibly durable, quick-drying, and resistant to chipping. Use it along with their nail enamel primer and quick dry top coat to get the most mileage out of your mani-pedis. When it’s time to reapply, be sure to use their soy-based vitamin enriched natural nail polish remover.
With beginnings as a green and eco-friendly salon in New Jersey, Karma Organic Spa has since developed its own line of natural and non-toxic beauty products. Also 7-free, Karma Organic Spa nail polish offers an assortment of more than 100 shades, including neon and glow-in-the-dark options. Though it does have a slight odor during application, it dissipates quickly as the polish dries. It also has good staying-power and lasts for days before needing any touch-ups. Use it together with Karma Organic Spa’s 2-in-1 base/top coat and organic lavender polish remover.
4. Piggy Paint
All of Piggy Paint nail polishes are made with three basic ingredients: water, neem oil, and acrylates copolymer. Geared toward the health and safety of kids, adults too can enjoy the non-toxic, hypoallergenic, cruelty-free, and low odor benefits of this brand of nail polish, available in dozens of vibrant hues. For best results, the company recommends applying base coat and top coat between coloring, and using a blow dryer to help speed up the process. Also worthy of note is Piggy Paint’s 100% natural nail polish remover.
Mineral Fusion comes in 51 stunning and dynamic colors and is wholly free of DBP, formaldehyde, camphor, and toluene. The extra-thick application brush provides excellent coverage and helps the polish go on smoothly. Use it along with their mango-scented acetone-free nail polish remover.
By the makers of Piggy Paint, SOPHi is an odorless natural nail polish that’s just for the adults. Short for “sophisticated”, SOPHi nail polish is water-based and yet formulated to be very durable. For the longest lasting manicures however, you should accompany the paint job with their Prime + Shine + Seal System.
Nail Polish Best Practices:
Even when using a non-toxic polish, follow these tips for a healthier planet and a healthier you:
Check the label
As ever, be vigilant about the ingredients in the products you purchase. Unfortunately, not all companies fully disclose their formulations. If you’re unsure about your favorite brand, the EWG has published a list of nail polish manufacturers that contain harmful ingredients.
Always apply nail polish in a well-ventilated space. Nail salons have notoriously poor air quality, so if you go to the spa (and bring your own polish), ask about what type of ventilation systems they use. Or better yet, only patronize spas that are committed to using organic products exclusively.
The glues used to bond artificial nails to the natural nail bed also contain some awful ingredients. Adhesives may incorporate methyl methacrylate and toluene, and acrylic nail removers are often made with chemical acetonitrile. The easiest way to avoid these toxic substances entirely is to give your nails a chance to grow.
If you have decided to toss out your old nail polish, don’t throw it in the trash. The EPA considers conventional nail polish to be household hazardous waste. Check out Earth 911’s recycling directory to find out how to properly dispose of nail polish in your area.