How to buy toxin-free nail polish

Posted on May 8th, 2013

*Updated March, 2016.

Let’s kick off with this: most nail polish is made with the same gunk used to make car paint. Yep, a toxic melange of solvents, film formers, resins and plasticisers. Whatever they are. But shall we move on? And see if there is some light at the end of this fumey tunnel?

Image via Favim.

Image via Kester Black.

I’ve written before on toxin-free cosmeticssafe fake tan lotions and toxin-free sunscreen, so I figured it was time to take a closer look at nail polish. I personally don’t wear the stuff. This is my strategy for avoiding toxins in most beauty products. But I know many of you out there do, so consider this a bit of a community service post!

For this reason, too, I’ve asked some of my expert toxin-free friends to weigh in on this stinky topic. It’s a combined effort.

1. Know your nasties.

Maria Hannaford at Econest works for an environmental organisation researching the impact our food system has on the environment and our health. She says most brands promoting themselves as “safe” these days will list themselves as “3-free”. This means they’re free of the top three nasty ingredients listed below. She explains:

  • Formaldehyde. It’s the stuff they use to preserve dead things. I should know, I worked in a lab for many years and let me tell you, there is a strict protocol around avoiding getting it on your skin or breathing in its fumes! It’s a known human carcinogen and can cause ear, nose, throat and skin irritations.
  • Dibutyl Phthalate. It’s the most controversial of these ingredients; it’s a known reproductive and developmental toxin, and is linked to hormonal and long-term fertility problems in newborn males. It’s banned in the EU. [But is apparently safe enough for Australians? – Sarah]
  • Toluene. A possible reproductive and developmental toxin that causes headaches, dizziness and fatigue. It can cause liver, kidney and brain damage, as well as damage to a developing foetus.

Irene Falcone is the creator of Nourished Life, a site specialising in selling eco-chic natural and organic beauty, children’s and home and lifestyle products. Irene also suggests you avoid nail polishes with parabens, phthalates, solvents (ethyl acetate and butyl acetate), nitrocellulose, acetone and heavy metals.

What to do?

  • If this chemical info is all too much, simply look for “3-free” labelling PLUS ensure there’s no ethyl acetate – a known neurotoxin and the worst of the additional nasties Irene lists – in the stuff. Many of the brands labelled as “3-free” still contain it.
  • Find water-based polishes. These don’t give out fumes, are not flammable and you don’t need to use harsh removers. See below for recommended brands.
  • When applying the polish, do it in a well-ventilated space or outside.

2. Choose these brands.

Finding a 100% natural nail polish free from synthetic chemicals is impossible, it simply doesn’t exist. Thankfully there are a few brands that are free from all of the f must-avoid ingredients and are rated among the safest on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database.

The experts’ favourites include:

* It’s worth nothing that none are made in Australia; all are imported from overseas. Another reason to save them for special occasions.

* But what about Butter London, you ask? It’s in health stores. Yes, it’s 8 free and does not add formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, DBP, toluene, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, or TPHP to any of its nail product formulas. A great option!

* Water-based polishes tend not to boast the glossy coverage or longevity of their paint-based counterparts. Sheswai is a 3-free brand with an environmental conscious that refuses to label their product ‘toxin-free’. You can read about this here.

3. Beware of polish removers.

Narelle Chenery is a scientist and creative director of Miessence. She says nail polish removers are just as bad as the polishes. They’re usually full of acetone, fragrances, methyl ethyl ketone, phthalates and toluene. Most of these cause significant damage to the human body, she says.

Maria adds:  As far as nail polish removers go, all conventional types should be avoided due to the harsh ingredients, but also the potent fumes.

What to do?

The good news is that most natural water-based nail polishes can actually be removed without any nail polish remover (usually by soaking fingers in hot water and peeling/scraping polish off) and many of the natural polish brands have their own removers that are safe and toxin-free.

4. Don’t do shellac.

Sabrina Jacquier Parr is founder of green beauty product site Flora Organica. She says: gel manis may look great, last for weeks and save you time and money on regular salon visits, but they make up for it by comprising your health. How so?

  1. To remove gel polish your nails are soaked in or wrapped in acetone. Acetone is a very drying chemical and will cause your nail to become brittle and peel after repeated use.  Regular or high level exposure can also cause headaches, fatigue, stupor, light-headedness, dizziness, confusion, increased pulse rate, nausea, vomiting, and shortening of the menstrual cycle in women.
  2. As with acrylic nails, the surface of your nail is usually abraded or roughed with an emery board before gel polish is applied. This will weaken your nail and lead to breakage and the possibility of infection.

5. Nail bars are not your friend.

The experts all agree: Don’t enter a nail salon. Just don’t. If you do go, at the very least make sure you sit next to an open window.

Sabrina says: Linda McSweeny, Journalist for the Medical Observer, describes visiting a nail salon as ‘chemical warfare’ and it does not take a science degree to know she is right. Nail salons reek of toxic chemicals because they are just that, toxic!” You can read more here. Chemicals (like those listed above) and other volatile organic compounds are used at such high levels that they can often cause headaches, irritations and breathing problems. Plus there are links to far longer reaching health issues such as cancer and reproductive issues.

What to do?

Some nail bars are going “3-free”. Ask your nail technician if they’ve switched to “3-free”. If all else fails take your own “3-free” colour with you.

6. If you’re pregnant, go naked.

With child? Then it’s safer for you and your baby to skip nail polish altogether.

Sabrina says: Pregnant woman should think twice before getting their nails done in a nail salon; at least one study has also shown that pregnant women who work or regularly visit nail salons may be putting their fetus’ brain development at risk due to the chemical solvents used.

Nicole Bijlsma is an accomplished naturopath, acupuncturist and building biologist. She adds: Pregnant women, asthmatics and children should all avoid nail polish and removers. Pregnant women – or more importantly the developing foetus – is uniquely susceptible to the hormone disrupting chemicals typically found in nail salons as they go through critical windows of development. This enhances their susceptibility to learning and behaviour disorders, reproductive problems later in life, and breast and testicular cancers. Remember with hormone disrupting chemicals the lower the level of exposure the better. For this reason, nail polish should be avoided in babies and children.

7. But kids can be in on the action…

Irene: For kids I love the newly launched Australian brand Pure Poppet. This non toxic water based range for little girls comes in 5 bright shades.

8. Try some natural nail tricks instead.

 Carla Oates has been researching and writing about natural beauty and health for the last ten years and is a great advocate for the organic industry. She says: You can easily rub a rich emollient in the form of a natural balm to a vegetable or nut oil into your nails to help strengthen them. Opt for unrefined oils as they retain their nutrient profile that infuse vital nutrients into the nail and the skin surrounding your nails. Soaking your nails in a silica-rich horsetail infusion may also help strengthen them. Silica can also be a great supplement to take internally for nail health. Oats are very high in silica too – but be sure to soak them before eating.

What to do:

Make your own healing nail oil, a recipe from Carla. It’s healing, strengthening and protective. Rich in omega 3,6 and 9, vitamin E and antioxidants.

Nailing It Oil

  • 30ml sweet almond oil
  • 20ml camellia seed oil
  • 5 drops lemon essential oil
  • 2 drops carrot seed essential oil
  • 3 drops lavender essential oil

Mix oils together well and put into a 50ml dropper bottle. Massage a few drops into your nails and nail area.

9. Dispose of your nail polish safely.

Maria says: Most Councils consider nail polish an environmental toxin and treat it just like paint (because it is!). They suggest you dispose of it through their Household Hazardous Waste programs.

10. Know your nails just a little bit more.

I found this stuff interesting…it has little to do with nail polish, but I reckon you’ll want to know it anyway. Consider it an added bonus!

The colour of your nails can also give you insight into your health. If you’re intrigued, Carla’s shared a little rundown below:

  • Yellow or white nails can indicate fungus infection.
  • No colour can be a sign of anaemia.
  • Purple nails may reflect poor circulation.
  • White spots on the nails often signify a zinc or calcium deficiency (which is interesting as most children I know with attention deficit issues sport many of these on their nails; a study showed that zinc deficiency is found in 66% of children with ADHD).
  • Longitudinal ridges on the nails can also be a sign of gut malabsorption and digestive issues.
  • Soft, brittle nails may also be a sign that your body is not receiving enough nutrients.
  • Brown spots on the nails that are pitting may reflect a deficiency in vitamin C or folic acid.
  • If the top of your nail is spooned it may signal low B12 and or iron.
  • Nails that split easily can suggest a deficiency in minerals such as copper and magnesium and/or essential fatty acid deficiency.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, 4-free and 5-free polishes have exploded onto the market. These polishes are free from camphor or formaldehyde resin (4-free), or both (5-free). Why would you want to avoid these ingredients? Formaldehyde resin is a dermatitis-causing skin allergen that can remain active for up to three days after your polish has dried. And while camphor is a natural ingredient, exposure in large doses (especially through inhalation) can be toxic and cause irritation, nausea, dizziness, and headaches. 

Here is a list of 3-, 4- and 5-free brands.

Anything you’d like to add? Or ask? The experts may wade in across the next few days.

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  • Maddison

    Wow, what a great post! I love love love my nailpolish and couldn’t live without it right now. But do not like the sound of so much toxicity being around me. Am definitely going to give your suggestions a try. Thanks so much very helpful!


  • Lilapud

    Oh thanks for this post! I’m planning a big cupboard and drawer clean out and have so much to do I didnt know which end to start – so now I’ve decided to leave the bathroom (mini-Priceline) drawers til closer to hazardous waste clean up day!!

    I think nail salons are pretty gross anyway – apart from the chemicals, they’re not, in general, very hygienic. I’ve only ever been about 3 or 4 times, & somehow I always feel pathetic somehow sitting there!! At their mercy. Penned in!! I no likey!

    I do my own pedicure, (I have a diploma in beauty therapy and this is the only way I’ve used it!!!) I paint my toenails but not my fingernails, I just like em the way the are! It’s time consuming, but it’s a nice thing to do for myself and it’s nurturing. Something I think we women need to do more for ourselves … nurturing I mean – not paint our toenails!

    Happy hump day y’all! xo


  • Monique

    Thanks Sarah! All the relevant info in one post, great.


  • Megan

    Great post! Absolutely agree we need to eliminate as many toxins in our daily life as possible. Any share all the information we can.
    On that note, another great nail polish brands is priti NYC- which are 4 free! There’s a new website I found that’s doing all non toxin beauty and skincare products. It’s called cleanse skincare, I’ve found a number of great products so if anyone’s looking for a one stop shop check it out at


    Kay Reply:

    What a find Megan. I have been waiting for that 100% Pure Coffee Bean Eye Cream to come back in to stock after seeing it on TV the other morning. Nourished Life sell it for $32.95. This site sells it for $19.95. Off to place my order now!


  • Jessica Nazarali – Health Coach

    Great post Sarah. I use Butter LONDON which is non-toxic and comes in awesome colours


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    Did you see the comment about Butter?


  • Gabriella

    Thank you so so so much for this information! I have avoided nail polishes for ages because of the headaches they caused me. But I now I don’t have to go polish free anymore!!!


  • Joelene

    I’ve been staring at my nail polish in the upboard for about 4 months (haven’t worn any for about 10 months now), deciding if I should chuck it or not. I think I know what I’m doing when I get home…


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    go naked!


  • Jess

    I use Priti NYC and they also have an amazing soy nail polish remover. Check out this great blog on all the vegan, non-toxic polishes on the market, by Gena Hemshaw,


  • Stormageddon

    White spots on the nails do NOT signify a calcium deficiency. That’s just an urban myth circa 1990 Dolly magazine. They are a result of knocks or bumps to the nail matrix as it develops. Ever bumped your finger in a car door and then had a resulting white mark on the nail that takes forever to grow out? That’s it.

    ADHD lists impulsiveness and clumsiness as symptoms. I’m not surprised kids with ADHD have a lot of bumps to their hands & nails. Doesn’t really have anything to do with vitamin deficiencies though.

    You can buff your nails all shiny and apply oil (any nail oil will do, or you can use macadamia, coconut, olive etc) if you want “polished” looking nails without actual polish.


    Rose Reply:

    Well, quite frankly, and this is why I read Sarah’s blog (for her alternate opinions) I too think there is some link between nail problems and health. I have white spots, plus horizontal ridges, plus toe nails that easily split. I’m pretty sure that these things relate to my ibs/leaky gut and the fact that I know I’m not absorbing a lot of nutrients. As clumsey as I am, and I have heaps of bruises to prove this, I’ve never knocked my finger nails! Toenails are a different matter however :-).


    Stormageddon Reply:

    Of course there is a link between nail problems and health. Your nails are part of your body. If you aren’t healthy, your nails won’t be healthy.

    But calcium spots on nails is an urban myth. If you are concerned about nutrient deficiencies, you should get your levels tested than relying on spots on your nails to diagnose you.


    melinda Reply:

    Hi all, as a practicing naturopath of 7 years I’d like to say that you’re both right in relation to calcium deficiency and nail health. Whilst white spots on the nail is not the definitive diagnosis for calcium or zinc deficiency, it can be an indication of it. Nails are made mostly of keratin and mineral deposits, particularly calcium and zinc to strengthen the nail. Therefore if the nails are ‘bumped’ and white spots appear, this can indicate that the nail matrix is weak and may not have the mineral status you’d hope for. In saying that, you could have calcium or zinc deficiency and have perfectly healthy nails due to not bumping them at all so it’s not really a useful tool for diagnosis. I get my clients to do hair mineral analysis for more accurate reflection of mineral status.
    Just wanted to clear that debate up, cheers :)

    Lilapud Reply:

    Hi Rose!

    Do you go to nail bars to get your nails done? Buffing nails actually can weaken them, and I’ve noticed that in these places, they buff the nail from side to side, which in my studies is very bad for the nail – I learned that if buffing, it should be done from the bottom of the nail bed to the tip in the direction of the growth of the nail. This helps to smooth out ridges but going from side to side will not help your problem – only exacerbate it.

    I imagine buffing was invented to encourage circulation of the blood to the finger tips, as we all know fresh blood bring nutrients, so it makes sense to go from bed to tip.

    They also start trimming off skin around the nail bed that is unnecessary and it then grows back harder and requires constant maintenance.

    I guess nail bars are purely for aesthetic results & that’s what turns me off about them – I’m not keen to use them myself as I’m rather fuzzy on what qualifications they need to have or actually have to touch me in that way!!!

    I believe there should be a basic understanding of anatomy & physiology, not to mention hygiene, fungal & cross infection etc.


    Stormageddon Reply:

    Hey Lilapud

    As the owner of a diploma in beauty therapy, I agree with you. Back when I studied as a teenager, a significant portion of our course was anatomy and physiology, and relied on nursing and physiotherapy texts to do so. It was considered roughly the same as studying the first year of a nursing qualification. Now, a diploma in beauty therapy no longer exists, only lesser qualifications which are skills based and rely less on anatomy and physiology knowledge, which is a real shame.

    Apparently in some European countries you have to study at university for four years, the same as a nurse or physician might, just to be an asthetician. I agree with this!

    Rose Reply:

    Hi Lilapud. No, I don’t go to nail bars. Tried it once or twice when I was younger but never liked them and yes it made my nails very week but that was 20 odd years ago. Also I don’t buff my nails ‘cos I’m lazy!

    Rose Reply:

    Oh and ps to Storm, I don’t just rely on my nails to tell to tell me about my digestive issues !

    Stormageddon Reply:

    @Rose – awesome. Cos the “white spots = calcium deficiency” was the only part of the article I disagreed with. I absolutely agree that nutritional deficiencies can cause a host of problems and result in weak nails among other things.

  • Kay

    Scotch Naturals is fabulous, so is the Pure Poppet. One of y kids was given a really pretty gift bag for her birthday last month. I’ve been using the Scotch for a few weeks (I was a Butter London fan until I heard it had a couple of things in it I didn’t like the sound of). I believe Shop Naturally are donating $2 from the sale of each Scotch bottle to Food Allergy Week at the moment, which is a really great cause. I also tried Keeki and it was clumpy and not very nice. Not sure if I just got a bad bottle or not, but it stained my nails, even through the base coat.


  • Kay

    Oh, and how do those people with those flimsy masks on who work in those nail salons not have some serious health issues. I feel nauseous just walking past them. In some shopping centres, they’re right near food places. How can they do that? Yuk.


  • Roxy

    Hi, I’ve been using a brand from the USA called “Priti” I love it and thought it was safe but unsure now after reading your article. Would love to know if you have any advise on this band? Some advise I was given that works for me is to add a finally chopped garlic clove to nail polish and use as a hardener, this has worked wonders for myself but I find my nails do become dry after a while from the nail polish, will try your oil recipe out.



    Jess Reply:

    Priti NYC is made by an Australian mum, but she is based in the US. If you look up the website you will see that the brand is one of the best non-toxic’s on the market and it is ‘5 free’.


    Roxy Reply:

    Thanks so much! I thought I was buying a good product x


  • tegan @ happyhealthywhole

    I loved shellac for a while (knowing it wasnt the best) it made my nails strong while it was on. Now its off they are a chipped horrible mess. Time to up the green juice! Its the only thing thats ever strengthened them naturally.


  • Lauren Burke

    While I generally only wear a little Butter polish in summer on my toes, I’ll thank you for pointing out its still could be less toxic.
    My gripe is that parents are taking their children into these places, birthday parties or even new mums who wheel their new little bubbas in and sit and relax. Fair enough, but please, don’t subject a child to these chemicals.
    End rant.
    p.s. missed your talk at Ted on the weekend, but boy, was the food and whole day FANTASTIC!


  • Amanda Munn

    I’m in a real “clean” phase at the moment also. I’ve kicked off Sarah’s no sugar challenge and have just cleaned out all of my beauty products. Am now using all non-toxic haircare and babycare products.

    See here for a great article on what nasties to watch out for in your beauty products – you’ll be shocked when you compare this list to what you have in your bathroom at the moment!


  • Briony

    Great article! Try the nail polishes at No Nasties nail polish! 10 great colours and NOt tested on animals, Aussie made and owned, Halal and Vegan certified.


  • Cat

    There is a online store call pixie poppets who sell non toxic nail polish. i bought some for my daughter and it is fantastic.


  • Rachel

    I’ve recently started using nail polishes by Kester Black.

    Their website says the polishes are Four Free (No Formaldehyde, No Toluene, No DBP, No Camphor), made in Australia and listed as cruelty Free, CCF accredited and vegan. I’ve found that i can scrape the polish off after soaking in hot water as Sarah described above. Worth a look!


  • Marlene

    Hi everyone – just to let you know (I am sure many of you already know), Honeybee Gardens can be purchased via – been buying their nail polish remover for years (amongst other things), Honeybee Gardens (based in the USA) are also on Facebook and will talk to you if you have any questions. :)


  • Anna

    Wow! I sort of knew this about nail polishes but just accepted it. I’m about to throw all mine including the polish remover out with some old paint I have to get rid of. Thanks for the great article it has really opened up my eyes. Thankyou again!


  • Cybele @ BlahBlah Magazine

    Great post. It’s interesting that the World Health Organisation is now concerned about phthalates too. They’re banned in US and European kids’ toys, yet Australian manufacturers are still allowed to put them in:


  • VE

    Great info, does anyone have a suggestion to stop nail biting? I bite and my 3 year old has now started. Awful to see, people keep suggesting polishes that taste bad, however I don’t like the idea. Is there a better alternative?


  • aena knost

    Great post, Sarah! Very informative. There are so many who don’t realize that some kinds of nail polish and removers can be quite toxic, if ingested.


  • judi klapp

    Sarah, great post. I hope many read this. You’d be surprised how many ladies decide to knead dough with their hands that have painted nails!


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  • Kyky

    Thank you! I just thought about the effects of painting nail polish on my little munchkin and googled to stumble upon this gem of an article! Thorough, detailed & contains all the links & info I need – thank you for taking the time to put it together!! :-)


  • Voula

    Interesting facts! I have bought the do it yourself home version of the acrylic polishes with the LED lamp. I wouldn’t think of scratching the surface of my nails before application of the polish but I wonder if these will also damage my nails if I use them very occasionally? I have used acetone based polish removers in the past but my nails hurt like hell afterwards. I’m very reluctant to use these acrylic polishes because you do need to use pure acetone to remove it. Has anyone got any experience with these DIY polishes & can you share ant insight please? I would really appreciate any feedback. Thanks! Voula


  • Susan

    Thank you for this post. A lot of great information I will keep. I always new nail polish and removers were bad and I do not go to the nail bars because they stink to the high heavens and I don’t understand how people can sit there and be exposed to it in that fashion. I do like my mani/pedis and I will now buy those less toxic ones you suggested and bring them to my favorite spa to have it done.


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  • Safe Nails

    Free of Toxic Trio isn’t enough for some brands. Snails (safe nails) is 6-free
    First WASHABLE (no acetone required to remove) nail polish. Made in France


  • emily

    Try calcium supplements – my Mom was a nail nibbler till she did – and then she didn’t want to bite any more!


  • Dana

    Great post, clears up so much confusion I have as I love doing my nails, but worry so much about the nasties especially during pregnancy. There are 2 new DIY nail products about to enter the Australian market, Jamberry and Gelmoments, claiming to be free of a lot of the toxins you mentioned, I’d love if you could review them and update your post when they hit our market. I’m sick of spending money only to find out the claims of no toxins turning out to be dodgy. Thanks for all you do Sarah, your a great inspiration!


  • Lisa Miller

    Thank you lovely Sarah, I love this article. And you know I’m a big fan of nail polish, especially after 14 years marketing OPI, I’ve now discovered a better nail lacquer brand that is Cruelty Free and the Big 5 Free – FABY Nails. And the quality equals that of OPI. Oh and FABY’s Gel products are TPO free – a grade 2 toxin found in all other gel brands.


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