*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.

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • Angela

    Do you know anything about Bio Sculpture Gel nail polish? I am looking at stocking it in our ammonia-free, natural and organic hair salon.

  • Cornelia Dumi

    Non-toxic nail polish options on
    http://corneliadum.com/wpen/vernis-a-ongles/

  • 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.

  • Missy
  • Safe Nails

    Free of Toxic Trio isn’t enough for some brands. Snails (safe nails) is 6-free
    FORMALDEHYDE
    DIBUTYL PHTHALTE (DBP)
    TOLUENE
    FORMALDEHYDE RESIN
    PARABENS
    CAMPHOR
    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!

  • Brigita

    Ingrowing toenails usually affect the side of your big toe. The nail starts to grow into the flesh at the side of your nail, and can cause a nasty infection.
    nagų priežiūra

  • non-toxic nail polish Luna Star Naturals manufactures KLEE Girls all-natural mineral makeup,Pinki Naturali kids’

    water-based nail polish,Sparkli Naturali role play

    makeup and Pretendi Naturali face paint.

  • 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.

  • Leo

    Do you want to sell your kidney for money? Contact usfor further inquiries at

    Email: [email protected]

    Tel:+917022565328

  • Eve

    Hi Sarah,
    PLEASE SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON “KEEKI???? IS THIS ONE YOU WOULD HIGHLY RECOMMEND? It’s water based. Thanks:-)

  • Eve

    omg I’ve just seen the supposed children’s ‘SAFE’ nail polish – NO WAY it’s a no go zone. I have searched so many different safe nail polishes and they all have at least one chemical that I don’t think is safe – yet they all seem to have one bad thing compared to another brand. I think it’ is time to make a REAL SAFE nail polish made from food…bet I can do it….stay tuned…maybe this is a call for me….

  • M.

    Great article but unfortunately most of the 5 free and even 7 free polishes still score 5 or 6 on the EWG’s Skin Deep toxicity scale, that’s pretty high And interestingly, the 5 and 7 free brands often don’t score any lower than the 3 free brands. Because what companies do when they drop a known toxic chemical from their formula is they just stick another toxic chemical in the formula instead, and eventually that one gets called out as toxic as well. It’s a game. Habit, for example, is a brand that touts it’s 5 free status and yet uses a resin that is highly toxic to our immune systems, according to the EWG. I hear water based polishes are pretty awful so I just choose to use regular polish less often.