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: it often contains harsh, toxic chemicals that have been linked to scary health problems. Thankfully, many brands are switching to non-toxic nail polish formulas because of potential health issues.
A Brief History of Nail Polish
Nail polish was first created in China, back in 3000 BCE. Made of beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, and vegetable dye, it was a very different product than what we use today. Egyptians used henna to paint their nails, with darker shades reserved for royalty.
Modern nail polish was first dreamt up by French makeup artist 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-, ten-, fourteen-, or even seventeen-free. These nail polishes are made without the top three following dangerous chemicals, along with others that the brand chooses to leave out.
Three-free brands exclude toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and formaldehyde, while five-free brands also leave out formaldehyde resin (TSFR) and camphor.
Toluene: This chemical creates a smooth texture in polish, making it easy to apply. It’s a known carcinogen (aka it causes cancer) and researchers have linked it to miscarriages and infertility.
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 it can cause liver and kidney failure. Although it isn’t banned for cosmetic use, it’s definitely still a chemical to avoid.
Formaldehyde: This is used to strengthen and harden nails, so it is more common in nail strengthening products. It has been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a carcinogen.
Formaldehyde Resin (TSFR): This is actually 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 can cause headaches, nausea, and difficulty breathing.
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 are going to a salon, try to find one that uses at least a 5-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 are 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.