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Non Toxic Nail Polish Explained: What Are The Best Brands & Why?

Updated on November 12, 2014
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Why Do We Need Natural Nail Polish?

By now, most of us are aware that nail polish is packed with chemicals - and many consumers are searching for a better alternative. Luckily, many companies are committed to producing a healthier polish - free from the major chemicals yet still offering the wide range of colorful options consumers expect. But which ones are best? And why do the supposedly ‘non-toxic’ nail lacquers still have an ingredients list 35 items long? In this article, I’ll explain the difference between ‘non-toxic’ and ‘natural’ nail polish; I’ll go over the ingredients to avoid at all cost, and I’ll share some of the best brands. Grab a cuticle stick and we’ll get started.

So, What Makes A Non Toxic Nail Polish?

First of all, what is ‘non-toxic’ nail polish? In truth, there are two types, depending on the base ingredient. Let’s take a closer look.

  1. First, there is nail polish labelled non-toxic. This is still made with a base of chemical solvents. It is called non-toxic because it is made without the nastiest chemicals. These polishes are a much better choice over mainstream polish; but they still contain other chemicals and can still have a lengthy ingredient list. A better term for them would be less-toxic.
  2. Second, there is nail polish labelled natural and non-toxic. This is made with a water base, and very few chemicals. These polishes are water-soluble and often have very few ingredients - usually just water and mineral-based pigments. But, they are not truly natural as they do include some man-made ingredients.

Both products have their strengths and weaknesses, and I’ll explain those a bit later. But first, let’s take a look at the chemicals we want to avoid and why.

Toxins You Won’t Find In Natural Nail Polish: Why They’re So Bad

Most nail polishes are made with a potent cocktail of toxins. The worst ones you’ll find in a typical bottle are formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, formaldehyde resin, and camphor.

Typical 5-Free Formula

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Pros & Cons

3-free & 5-free solvent based polishes:

Pros: avoid the worst toxins; act like regular nail polish; adheres and lasts well

Cons: still expose you to risky substances; still have some odor

Water-Based Polishes:

Pros: no odor; non-toxic; best choice for pregnant women and kids; removes with water; performs well when applied as directed

Cons: may not perform as well as conventional polish; more subject to chipping

Non-toxic nail polish brands will describe themselves as ‘3-free’ or ‘5-free’, depending on how much of this list they exclude. These chemicals are known to be serial health offenders. Formaldehyde causes cancer and is a severe irritant to humans; DBP causes hormone and fertility problems, increases risk of diabetes, and is banned in the EU; Toluene can cause a whole host of issues including kidney, liver, and brain damage. Both DBP and Toluene are developmental toxins, making them especially dangerous to babes in the womb and children. These chemicals are used in nail polish as plasticizers and thickeners.

As if those aren’t enough poison, your nail polish will typically also contain chemical solvents (ethyl acetate and/or butyl acetate), flammable compounds (nitrocellulose) acetone, benzophenone, heavy metals, parabens... I’d have to be a scientist to explain it all, but trust me: nail polish is full of crazy chemicals that are not meant to be anywhere near our bodies.

Did You Know?

Traditional nail polish is considered a toxic substance and must be disposed of accordingly!

Nail polish brands call themselves non-toxic because they avoid the top three, the top five, and sometimes more. By avoiding the big bad chemicals, they do significantly reduce the health risks to wearing nail polish and breathing its fumes. It doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but it’s a huge improvement.

Closer To Natural: Water-Based Color For Your Tips

Water-based ‘natural’ nail polish brands typically contain water, an acrylic polymer, and pigment. The water base means they avoid nasty solvents.

Tip:

To increase durability with water-based nail polish, make sure to use a base and top coat (ideally by the same brand) to help the product perform. The polish will adhere best if the nails are grease-free, and often needs a long curing time such as overnight. Read and follow the manufacturer’s directions for maximum durability.

Acrylic polymer is basically a plasticky substance that allows the pigments to stick on the nails. It is not known to be toxic or irritating to humans. Most brands claim to use naturally-occurring pigments. Because there are no solvents, water-based polish does not give off any odor. And, they usually have far fewer ingredients. I counted a few out of curiosity; the ingredients on a typical bottle of Revlon were 39; a Sally Hansen bottle, 37; and a water-based bottle, 5. Some brands do have a higher ingredient count, but overall these products are much, much less toxic than the conventional polish in the drugstore.

So Which Should You Choose?

Now that you know the difference between solvent-based and water-based nail polishes - and you understand that neither is truly natural - which one should you buy and why? The answer lies with you - and depends on your lifestyle and your reasons for choosing a healthier nail polish.

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If you wear nail polish religiously, and dislike touching up chips, 3-free or 5-free polish is a good choice to start with. It will still offer the performance you are used to, yet will expose you to much lower chemical levels. 3-free and 5-free polishes are also a good way to break into the healthier polish world if you’re curious. However, know that these polishes do still expose you to some questionable substances, they do emit odors, and they do require nail polish remover.

If you are pregnant, sensitive to smells, work with young children, or simply want to avoid chemicals, a water-based polish is better. These polishes are also odor-free, so you can apply them anywhere. Some types remove with alcohol or natural nail polish remover; some even peel off after a soak in water. However, they may not have quite the durability of traditional nail polish - although many brands offer specific instructions on how to optimize wear.

Okay, So What Are The Best Brands In Non Toxic Nail Polish?

Less-toxic and non-toxic nail polish is much easier to find today than it was ten years ago. Many brands are hopping on the ‘healthier’ bandwagon, and I predict that more and more brands will follow suit in coming years. Let’s take a look at a few top picks in each category, and I’ll show you a few I specifically recommend.

In The Less-Toxic Category:

I am going to assume you’re reading this because you want a healthier polish. That’s why, when shopping for a less-toxic polish, I highly recommend choosing a 5-free formulation; it makes the most sense to me to choose the lowest risk. In this category, my top picks are:

Zoya

The first brand to offer toxin-reduced polishes, Zoya offers a drool-worthy range of 300 colors, and a short ingredient list (8). It gets excellent reviews for wearability and shine.

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SpaRitual

A luxurious nail polish used in many upscale spas, Sparitual goes on beautifully and wears very well. Colors tend toward a more sophisticated feel.

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Priti

This celeb-favorite was dreamed up by Kim D’Amato when she noticed the lack of safer nail polishes during her pregnancy. Priti produces custom shades for designers showing collections on the runways of Fashion Week, twice a year in NYC - so you know these colors are on trend.

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Sheswai

A sustainably-harvested wood cap is the signature of Sheswai’s brand, and the bottles are uniquely beautiful.

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In The Water-Based Category:

As natural as can reasonably be expected.

Aquarella

A sleek collection of 49 colors makes Aquarella on par with any polish line. The product is water-based, and you’d never guess.

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Honeybee Gardens

A brand committed to “cosmetics that are wholesome, fashionable, and fun!”. Honeybee polish is water-based but very durable, and gets rave reviews.

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Cosmay

Offering 60-70% organic ingredients, Cosmay is another great water-based polish with 220 stunning colors.

Naturally, A Nail Poll

What concerns you most about using nail polish?

See results

Natural Nail Polish: The Only Choice

I hope this has been helpful in explaining what ‘non-toxic’ and ‘natural’ really means when it comes to nail polish. All of these brands offer great nail polish that is free of the most dangerous substances. Whatever your lifestyle or your needs, there’s a healthier polish that’s perfect for you. The only trouble now is choosing colors!

If you come across a brand of non-toxic nail polish you like, please share in the comments! I’m always curious what works for different people.

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