A nail biter: why your nail polish is out to get you, what to look for, and what not to worry about

The beauty industry is unregulated. This means that the companies who profit from the products of that industry decide what is safe and what is not. It’s frustrating to no end. As a makeup junkie, one must keep abreast of all of the latest research. Many companies even advertise that they have stopped using harmful chemicals, but continue to do so. Even more still test on animals, which has been proven to unnecessary. Here you can read my article about animal testing (to come soon!). The problem is that makeup companies are betting that the average makeup customer either won’t care or will be easily confused by long lists of technical names and instead be dazzled by the packaging, color, smell, and so on. We aren’t that stupid. What follows are some facts to arm yourself with in order to be a more informed consumer. Vote with your wallet!

What to Avoid

Deborah Blume published in the New York Times blog about the “toxic 3” in January of 2014. She says

The idea of nail polish as a risky substance gained traction in 2006 when public health advocates began a nationwide protest concerning three compounds — often referred to as “the toxic trio” — in leading nail polish brands.  The trio consisted of a known carcinogen, formaldehyde, used as a hardening agent, and two materials linked to developmental defects: toluene, to evenly suspend color, and the plasticizer dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, to add flexibility and sheen… many companies have voluntarily removed these compounds from their products, although, as a 2012 investigation by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control found, some simply changed their labels while continuing to use them.

Nail polishes that lack those three ingredients are referred to as “3-free,” however now there is a term for polishes that have taken out even more harmful chemicals. 5-free is the term used to indicate nail polishes that have no Toluene, Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Formaldehyde, Formaldehyde Resin, or Camphor.

  • DBP – This chemical is a plasticizer, which means that it increases the malleability of a product, these can be added to substances such as clay or concrete.  According to The  European Commission Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks found that it is the only phthalate that general exposure needs to be reduced. It is also a reproductive toxin.


  • Toluene – According to the OSHA website, the symptoms of toluene exposure would include irritation of the eyes and nose, weakness, dizzinesstoluene cas no 108-88-3 shipping mark_ big, headache, etc. Many of these symptoms are caused by prolonged exposure, primarily ingestion or inhalation. The affects one would see after exposure to a small bottle of nail polish are probably not quite so bad, but nevertheless, it is an irritant.


  • Formaldehyde – Formaldehyde is highly toxic to all animals, regardless of the means of ingestion/exposure. This is the one that I have the most problem with being put in a cosmeticFormaldehyde (Small) product. The 13th report on Human Carcinogens which is published by the National Institutes of Health considers formaldehyde a known human carcinogen based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity from studies in humans and supporting data on mechanisms of carcinogenesis. 


  • Formaldehyde Resin – As the name would imply, this is a resin made with formaldehyde. It is most commonly used as a finishing product in construction, Captureas it is durable and waterproof. This has many of the same affects of Formaldehyde, especially in those individuals who are very sensitive to the substance; results include watery eyes, skin rashes and irritation, coughing, etc.


  • Synthetic Camphor – I wasn’t sure what camphor was when I first came across the name.93_Camphor_burningIt is found in some woods and some members of the mint family may also contain up to 20% camphor. Synthetically, it is made from turpentine. It is also an embalming fluid. What I find to be interesting is that it has been used as a spice and as a medicinal agent in ages past; when absorbed into the skin it produces a “tingly” sensation akin to menthalation and during the early 20th century, it was used to fight fatigue. Though, cocaine was too. Early 20th century remedies were some crazy stuff. Anyway, this is considered toxic to humans, despite the fascinating past.


What Not to Worry About

Now, I am not a chemophobe, and some seemingly scary preservatives or suspenders are benign and perfectly safe for both the user and the environment. I know that many people look for “all natural” products but there are a few problems with that.

I’m currently working on an article that denounces the new plant-based beauty trend, I’ll link it here when it’s up. (tl;dr version: all natural is a lie)

For example, the first two ingredients of my Deborah Lippmann polish are Ethyl Acetate and Butyl Acetate. Ethyl Acetate is often used in nail polish but is also used to decaffeinate coffee and tea, is present in perfumes, occurs naturally in fruit, and also occurs naturally in wine. It has a fruity taste and flavor. Butyl Acetate is found in both apples and bananas.


What to Look For

I highly recommend going to EWG’s Skin Deep Website which has a list of products and ingredients that may or may not be harmful to your health. Always look for products that use the leaping bunny icon which means that they do not test on animals. From their website:

he Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics’ (CCIC) Leaping Bunny Program administers a cruelty-free standard and the internationally recognized Leaping Bunny Logo for companies producing cosmetic, personal care, and household products. The Leaping Bunny Program provides the best assurance that no new animal testing is used in any phase of product development by the company, its laboratories, or suppliers. —

images (1)images Here are some of the logos you may see that indicate cruelty-free nail polish.






Brands I like

Some of my favorite brands are both 5-free and cruelty free:

  • Deborah Lippmann – These polishes are a bit pricey, but I love them for the colors and formula that features green tea extract. Here my review of one of her Holiday ’14 collection.
  • SpaRitual – This is a brand with a purpose. The concept is that it is a “slow beauty” brand, and though I could not find a definition on their website as to what exactly this means to them, I assume that it is meant to evoke “slow fashion” which puts the emphasis on style and craftsmanship instead of trends. Think buying a 300$ Commes Des Garcons jacket instead of 10 30$ jackets from Forever21. I’m a little skeptical of the site because it acts as if it is doing more than simply making body and nail products… with phrasings like “slow down and realize your true self” I feel like they may be cashing in on the new age trend. At any rate, I like their polishes, some are a tad boring, but the ingredients are good and they last long enough. I’m excited to try their “infinitely loving” line of body products, because I LOVE the smell of jasmine.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics – Their polishes are 5-free and cruelty free. I have only used one of their colors, but I was astounded by how highly pigmented it was and how quickly it dried. You can read my review of it here.
  • More to Come! I welcome suggestions!

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