Painting your nails is a fun, inexpensive way to express your personal style. But nail polish isn’t exactly a sustainable or eco-friendly beauty product. Thankfully, many brands are interested in innovating and creating products made with only the highest quality ingredients.
A Brief History of Nail Polish
Nail polish was first created in China, back in 3000 B.C. Made of beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, and vegetable dye, it was a very different product than what we use today. Around the same time, Egyptians also used henna to paint their nails, with darker shades reserved for royalty.
Modern nail polish was first dreamt up by French makeup artists Michelle Ménard and Charles Revson in the 1920s. They founded Revlon and opened their first nail polish factory after finding inspiration in another common lacquer: car paint.
Ingredients to Avoid
You might have seen some non-toxic nail polishes marketed as three-, five-, seven-, 10-, 14-, or even 21-free. These nail polishes are made without harsh chemicals that are typically used in traditional nail polish formulas.
Three-free brands exclude toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and formaldehyde, while five-free brands also leave out formaldehyde resin (TSFR) and camphor. Here are the most common ingredients to avoid when buying nail polish of your own.
Toluene: This chemical creates a smooth texture in polish, making it easy to apply. It’s a known carcinogen, which is why it's important to know what chemicals you're putting on your body.
Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP): DBP is a plasticizer in nail polish—it helps prevent chipping. The United States, Canada, and the European Union have banned DBP for use in children’s toys because of health concerns. Although it isn’t banned for cosmetic use, it’s definitely still a chemical to avoid.
Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is used to strengthen and harden nails, so it's more common in nail strengthening products. It has been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a carcinogen.
Formaldehyde Resin (TSFR): TSFR is a polymer made by combining formaldehyde and toluene. It causes all the same problems as both chemicals.
Camphor: Also a plasticizer, camphor’s link to health problems is weaker than the other common chemicals in nail polish. Consistent exposure to camphor, though, may lead to health issues.
How to Get an Eco-Friendly Manicure
Whether you’re doing your mani at home or going to the salon, you want to make sure that your polish isn’t going to harm you (or your manicurist).
Start by checking the ingredients list on the polish you have. At Brightly, we always encourage you to use up whatever you have before buying new. With some of these ingredients, though, it might be best to throw out the bottle and buy a safer brand instead. Be sure to check with your waste management company about throwing polish away, as some areas count nail polish as chemical waste.
If you're going to a salon, try to find one that uses at least a five-free brand of polish. You also want to make sure that the nail salon is well ventilated, as these chemicals cause the most damage when they're inhaled. There are non-toxic nail salons in most major cities, but it’s always a good idea to call ahead and ask about the polish they use and the condition of the salon.
Non-Toxic Nail Polish Brands to Try
1. Dazzle Dry, $22
Dazzle Dry is a vegan, cruelty-free, and nine-free brand (no toluene, formaldehyde, TPHP, nitrocellulose, camphor, formaldehyde resin, ethyl tosylamide, phthalates, xylene, and MEK).
The company has a unique polish system that takes care of nails from start to finish. Its mission is to "provide safe and clean nail care products that do not harm people, the hands that make them, or the environment."
2. Talon, $10+
Talon polishes are vegan, cruelty-free, and free of 10 harmful ingredients (formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, camphor, formaldehyde resin, xylene, parabens, ethyl tosylamide, triphenyl phosphate, fragrance, phthalates, and animal ingredients).
It uses 100% post-consumer recycled mailers that are biodegradable, and the company allows bottles to be returned to them so they can reuse or recycle them.
3. Base Coat, $20
Base Coat carries polishes that are 21-free (no animal derivatives, toluene, benzene, xylene, formaldehyde releaser, formaldehyde resin, phthalates, cyclic silicones, camphor methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), glycol ethers of series E, hydroquinone (HQ), 4-methoxyphenol (MEHQ), triphenyl phosphate (TPP), nonylphenol ethoxylates, tert-Butyl hydroperoxide, chromium, oxide greens, bismuth oxychloride, carcinogenic mutagenic reprotoxic (CMR) substances, synthetic, fragrances, and ethyl tosylamide).
Its breathable line of polishes is Halal-Certified so that "water can permeate the polish and reach the nail, which makes it possible for Muslims to wear this polish during prayer rituals." Base Coat also has non-toxic salons in several states.
4. Smith & Cult, $18
Smith & Cult caries vegan, 8-free nail polishes (no dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, xylene, ethyl tosylamide, and triphenyl phosphate).
The brand is also Leaping Bunny Certified, meaning that you can rest assured that the products are never tested on animals.
5. Olive & June, $9
Olive & June polishes are budget-friendly, free of seven harmful ingredients (dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, and xylene), vegan, and cruelty-free.
Bonus: Olive & June also carries press-on nails made from 94% post-consumer recycled materials.
6. Orosa, $12
7. Ella + Mila, $10.50
Ella + Mia polishes are free of 17 common ingredients (no acetone, animal-derived ingredients, Bisphenol A, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, gluten, e-series glycol ethers, nonylphenol ethoxylate, parabens, phthalates like DBP, styrene, sulfate, toluene, triphenyl phosphate, and xylene). The company is also certified cruelty-free by PETA.
8. Beetles Gel Polish, $8.95+
If you'd prefer a gel manicure that lasts much longer than a regular polish, check out Beetles Gel Polish. It's a budget-friendly, 9-free option (no formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, toluene, parabens, sulfates, camphor, triphenyl phosphate, xylene, and ethyl tosylamide). You can score a long-lasting professional look without stepping foot in a salon.
9. Mischo Beauty Nail Laquer, $20
Mischo Beauty creates nail lacquers that are 10-free (no formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, triphenyl phosphate, tert-Butyl hydroperoxide, and parabens).
The company also claims to prioritize sustainable packaging, where possible, and is working on reducing its waste, carbon footprint, and use of plastic materials.