Ever started cleaning a shelf quickly and ended up pulling everything out of the closet, and 5 days later you’ve spent $250 on organizers and your closet is better than new?
That’s kind of what happens to me a lot with posts, like my crazy natural mineral sunscreen review that I started back in 2010 and has bloomed to over 100 now!
I like being thorough, so when a little Facebook share about the hazards of nail polish got a lot of attention, my team and I decided we should address it thoroughly here at Kitchen Stewardship.
Five weeks, dozens of woman-hours and more than $200+ later, we started to wonder if there was any such THING as a natural nail polish (there certainly isn’t an organic nail polish that’s easy to source; this game isn’t about pesticides or Round-Up).
Here’s what we’ll cover non-toxic nail polish:
- What’s in nail polish that might harm you?
- What ARE the risks, and do the potential toxins go through the nail or just in the air?
- How to decipher the marketing language “natural” nail polish brands are using – and is it all greenwashing anyway?
- What brands of nail polish are worth looking at – based on ingredient safety, price, and smell tests?
I really did spend $250 on nail polish this month, and one of my children couldn’t smell anything at all for 2 minutes after some of our smell tests.
This is the real deal, folks, and even though you can find lists of “toxin-free” nail polishes at sites like Allure, they don’t dig into the research about what’s really safe, and they don’t test all the nail polish brands out.
Kitchen Stewardship does, so you don’t waste money on junk.
Let’s start with the research, because you should know WHY bother seeking out a more natural nail polish.
Possible Health Hazards & Toxic Ingredients in Nail Polish
Nail polish grew out of the automotive industry – paint created for cars.
Now while it’s pretty awesome that paint could stay on through a snowstorm OR doing dishes, people weren’t really thinking of the health ramifications of the ingredients being on our bodies.
In fact, The FDA says, “Many nail products contain potentially harmful ingredients but are allowed on the market because they are safe when used as directed. For example, some nail ingredients are harmful when swallowed, but not when used on the nails, because the nail is a barrier, which prevents absorption.”
There are a couple problems with that:
- What about the inhalation dangers? Anyone who has put on nail polish in an enclosed area can tell you there’s an effect on your body from the fumes!
- What about nail biters…and children sucking on their fingers? We moms can’t say that our little girls aren’t going to be swallowing bits of nail polish, dear FDA people.
- What about skin contact from sloppy application? Again, moms have to be realistic. 😉
And worse yet, a 2015 study indicates that least one potentially harmful nail polish ingredient – an endocrine disruptor – IS absorbed into the body when nails are painted.
What’s an endocrine disruptor? A chemical that affects the hormones, causing such effect as infertility, endometriosis, increased risk of some cancers, birth defects, brain and behavior problems, and negative impact on immune and nervous system function. (sources: NIH, EPA).
If that’s something to worry about for you, then finding the best natural nail polish for yourself and your children should be of utmost importance (or just skipping the pretty nails!).
Can Nail Polish Permeate the Nail?
Here’s the thing – for the FDA to say that nothing can get through a fingernail or toenail is one way of saying, “it hasn’t yet been proven,” with great emphasis on the YET. As research continues to come out, the FDA may need to reverse that claim (it wouldn’t be the first time that organization has been wrong.)
Here’s some research to consider:
- Characterization of the physical factors affecting nail permeation using water as a probe from 2000 shows that pH and temperature can affect the permeability of the nail, and also that different people have a vast range of permeability. In other words, we don’t quite understand how much gets through nails under real circumstances.
- Effects of Organic Solvents on the Barrier Properties of Human Nail from 2011 found that solvents such as ethanol, propylene glycol, and polyethylene glycol decreased the ability of the nail to keep chemicals from passing through it. Propylene glycol and “glycol ethers” are ingredients in some of these natural nail polish options, and ethanol may be involved as well.
I know that’s not a ton, but in my book, if there’s a question, I’d rather play the safe side than the guinea pig side.
Scientists also theorize that cuticles may also be involved in helping nail polish ingredients get into our bodies, and then there’s the nail biters and finger suckers.
What issues might arise with all the ingredients in nail polish?
- hormone imbalance
- attention issues
- behavioral issues
- low IQ
- burning throat or lungs, labored breathing or shortness of breath (EPA)
As my team and I dug into the issue, I kept getting messages like, “I’m thinking of swearing off all nail polish! This is freaky!”
Team member Amy’s final recommendation is not a bad idea: Get a buffing block, buff your nails to a beautiful natural shine, and avoid the chemical concerns completely. This one has the steps printed right on the block. 😉
But Katie, I Really Like Nail Polish? What Can I do to be the Safest?
If you must have color, water-based polishes seem to be the least chemical option currently available.
They definitely have less scent across the board, so if painting your nails gives you a headache, be sure to choose water-based natural nail polish options from my post with all the non-toxic nail polish reviews where I go into the details of how they go on (and off).
Most of the water-based natural polishes seem to require a long “curing” time, during which they’re dry to the touch, but will still come off if you get them wet.
Since one blog post mentioned, “Truly chemical-free nail polishes used in ancient times required long overnight drying times and produced low to no-gloss finishes. In order to be practical, current formulations require the use of synthetic polymers or resins and these synthetic ingredients have their pitfalls…and dangers,” this might indicate that water-based polishes really are more natural.
But — water-based nail polishes tend to come off quickly and don’t have the staying power of the ol’ “paint your car” polishes you’re used to. They’re great for little girls, but what if an adult just wants something that stays on?
We’ll have to dig into all the ingredients to find the best of the worst, now, won’t we?
Breaking Down the Common Toxins in Nail Polish (& What is 3-Free? 8-Free???)
Nail Polishes have followed the culture in trying to be more healthy and safe by labeling their products “3-Free,” or “5-Free,” and now there are even brands with “7-Free” in their name and some claiming up to 9 or 10 “free.” The number 8 seems to be the most popular when brands are trying to say, “Oh yes, we are amazingly natural, you definitely want to buy our product.”
Here’s the deal – just because a nail polish that’s trying to act “natural” has a higher number on what they claim to be “free” of doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safer than the next one over.
The ingredients they’re claiming to be “free” of don’t get incrementally more toxic as the numbers go up; it’s just the order in which companies figured out how to get rid of things (or what they decided they could point out they don’t have to make consumers happy).
Lab Muffin’s take on it all cracked me up a bit – she questions whether the marketing will go to “15-Free” and be free of gluten, added sugar, and terrorists…you get the picture. She makes the point that especially between 3 and 7, not much is going on that’s worth anything.
Let’s dig into the actual hazards here one at a time, and then we can figure out what threshold we’ll really allow to be chewed off our little girls’ fingernails and put into our household air.
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and lung and nasal irritant.
In nail hardeners, formaldehyde bonds with the keratin that occurs naturally in the nails, making the nails harder. Using these nail hardeners often, however, may make nails brittle and more likely to break or peel. Nail products that contain formaldehyde may also cause skin irritation, as well as allergic reactions to this ingredient.” source
Formaldehyde is typically found in nail polish under different names, such as “formalin” and methylene glycol.”
Bottom line: Doesn’t seem worth it to me to use product with formaldehyde!
Toluene has been known to impede development in children, is carcinogenic, and a human reproductive toxin. In the air, it can irritate eyes and nose or even cause dizziness, headache, anxiety or worse.
Bottom line: Doesn’t seem worth it to me!
Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)
DBP was one of the first harmful nail polish ingredients to really be thrown under the bus, and brands pulled it in droves. Good intentions, bad results (more on that later).
Phthalates in general have been studied more intensely since the early 2000s, and a Consumer Product Safety bill passed in 2008 banned them in children’s products (thank goodness!). The CDC, notoriously slow to make a decision, is still thinking but admits that they are evident in the blood of the general population.
Their only official word? “Animal tests show that this substance possibly causes toxicity to human reproduction or development.” (source) However, in a report to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, studies linked DBP to:
- attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
- breast cancer
- obesity and type II diabetes
- low IQ
- neurodevelopmental and behavioral issues
- autism spectrum disorders
- altered reproductive development and male fertility issues
- Thanks to The Guardian for this list.
As with many toxic ingredients, manufacturers often replace one with another, then find that #2 is just as bad or worse. It’s happened in the phthalate class and also with BPA.
Bottom line: Avoid. I would also avoid any ingredient that ends in or includes phthalates in its name as they’ve recently been made official with an “endocrine disruptor” status (I saw this coming).
Nail polish brands that don’t include the 3 ingredients above are pretty universally agreed to be “3-Free.”
The caveat? Some of them have the unsavory ingredients in them anyway, and all the brands that replaced DBP with triphenyl phosphate likely only made the health situation much worse.
Also known as Tosylamide/TSFR, it may cause allergic reactions or skin irritations.
Bottom line: If you get a rash from nail polish, avoid this ingredient.
Highly flammable, causes yellow staining on nails, may irritate eyes, skin, nose, mouth and throat, may irritate lungs and cause shortness of breath. Could cause dizziness and nausea.
It is found often in nail polish, at least back in 2012. It’s limited to 11% of formulations in the U.S.
I feel like this particular ingredient is very in flux, with eMedicineHealth saying that it’s likely safe to apply to the skin, WebMD reminding us as recently as 2017 that it’s very poisonous if swallowed and that pregnant women and children should not use it, and Livestrong reporting in 2017 possible birth defects, although the EPA says that it’s a “naturally occurring substance when released from trees and quickly dissipates in the air.”
Bottom line: Better safe than sorry as we continue to learn more.
Parabens, of course, have been on my hit list for a very long time. They’re definitely endocrine disruptors, and I’m not going to wait to find out if they sneak through the nails or not.
We are exposed to enough synthetic hormones in our world without me adding one more!
The funny thing is though – I don’t know that a lot of nail polish ever included parabens (any word that ends in –paraben counts), because they’re typically a preservative, and nail polish doesn’t really have a lot in it that would degrade or grow bacteria or mold! One of those marketing things that means nothing when it comes to safer nail polish, I’m guessing.
Bottom line: Never use anything that includes parabens! Nail polish probably won’t anyway.
Xylene would be a real concern, rated 8 at EWG – if it was common in nail polish. This site says xylene is in nail polish to mask the strong odors they tend to have (in the conventional world of nail polish, at least!), but this one from 2017 says you hardly find it in any anymore.
Possible health concerns include respiratory irritation/toxicity of eyes and nose, plus harming the digestive system, kidney, liver or cardiovascular system/blood.
Bottom line: This is an ingredient to stay clear of for sure, but it sounds like that’s getting easier and easier anyway.
Is 7-Free Nail Polish Good Enough?
The possibly toxic (or not) ingredients above here are in order of what’s commonly accepted in the numeric “free” list when it comes to finding a more natural nail polish. So a brand that avoids everything listed so far would be “7-Free.” But there’s more to discuss… Many brands claim to be “free” of the next few ingredients, but they’re not on most official “free” lists. Should we avoid them? Let’s dig in:
Some brands point out that their nail polishes are free of artificial colors, something we try to avoid ingesting as a family.
I also really dislike tattoos on my kids’ skin because I don’t trust that the colors won’t be absorbed. But on nails, it’s probably less of an issue, although still nice to see mica and titanium dioxide as options instead of Red #40.
Bottom line: This only feels important if your child has a known sensitivity to artificial colors.
Some nail polish brands are also claiming “lead-free” in their marketing. A quick Google search showed that lead in nail polish isn’t a huge concern, but I appreciated the review from Your Organic Child which discussed lead being in nail polish as a result of the pigments used to create the color. Refinery 29 confirms that lead is usually just in the iron oxide pigments in trace amounts, but regulated by the FDA.
That kind of brings us back to the issue above on color – even “natural” colors can have contaminants!
Bottom line: Can only confirm by trusting the company, but not a huge concern.
In the newer “gel” nail polishes, you’ll find acrylates and methacrylates. A study in Contact Dermatitis showed that almost 50% of subjects reacted with skin issues to acrylates. They were even named Contact Allergen of the Year 2012 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.
Bottom line: I’d stay away from the gels; there are way too many questions and issues with a “new” product.
Do you Need MORE than 8-Free to have a Truly Non-Toxic Nail Polish?
When brands started claiming “8-Free,” most of them list triphenyl phosphate as the #8 ingredient they omit, but others go another direction. Ethyl Tosylamide is another ingredient up in the 8s and 9s (and some say “10-Free!”)
But what really matters in all this marketing??? Let’s unpack the last two common ingredients in omitted in “natural” nail polish:
Listed under some “9-free” lists but not really seen as that toxic. EWG gives it a “3” rating all by itself and there’s no carcinogenic worries.
Site after site states that there may be some concern about its antibiotic effects and that it’s banned in Europe, but I confirmed in two ways that it is NOT. I’m not saying it’s safe or desirable, because I have no idea, but there really isn’t data to say otherwise and many untruths that would be easy to cite.
If you’re curious my methods, I used the CAS no. here to determine that ethyl tosylamide is not on this list of substances prohibited in cosmetics products from the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. I also followed the EWG’s source link, which was dead but moved to here, and ethyl tosylamide shows no restriction.
Bottom line: No real concern. 9-Free is marketing. If a brand claims more than 9-Free, make sure they list what ingredients they mean!
8-Free Must Exclude TPHP to Mean Anything!
In the intro to this post, I hinted that there’s one particularly toxic ingredient that has been proven to show up in women’s systems within 10 hours of painting their nails. The ingredient is triphenyl phosphate, or TPHP (also TPP) and it’s an endocrine disruptor.
If your “8-Free” brand doesn’t exclude it, leave it on the shelf.
Triphenyl Phosphate (TPHP or TPP)
According to an article on EWG, there’s “growing evidence that the chemical could affect hormones, metabolism, reproduction and development” source. Recent animal studies have raised concerns about what it’s doing to reproductive systems and even possible links to obesity.
Despite this, many popular brands of nail polish contain TPHP, because it was the “better” replacement for one of the first ingredients to be vilified, DBP. It has similar effects as a developmental toxin and is one of those flame retardants added to just about everything these days, from couch cushions to mattresses to (gasp!) infant nursing pillows. 🙁
It’s an ingredient in Firemaster 550, a controversial formula that was again, trying to be safer than the one before it. NC State University found Firemaster to be a definite endocrine disruptor and contributor to weight gain in 2012. The EPA lists TPHP individually here as a moderate carcinogenic hazard, but to be fair, Isopropylated triphenyl phosphate has a much worse list of severe health effects. Any study on Firemaster isn’t conclusive about TPHP specifically.
In 2015, the best research to date was published, showing that TPHP was evident in urine tests after painting nails, and putting fake nails on the outside of gloves also showed that the exposure is through the skin or nail, not inhalation. Most studies on the toxicity of TPHP are in aquatic animals, but the 2 human studies do confirm that it may have endocrine and reproductive impact, specifically on thyroid hormone levels and semen quality.
The Chicago Tribune and others reported on the study, and although the reporter extrapolates data from Firemaster 550 studies and makes assumptions, the media on that research did cause many nail polish brands to scramble to remove TPHP.
That would be great, except that another study has found it in polish that didn’t even list TPHP as an ingredient!
This isn’t uncommon – the California EPA found toulene in 10 of 12 nail polishes they tested that claimed they were “3-free,” which should have excluded toulene.
The cool part? Their report lists every naught brand.
I only recognized two of them: Zoya tested free of everything on the list except what is listed in Zoya’s ingredients and acetone, not listed but possibly under a synonym. Acetone is not hazardous. Hopefully, based on what we currently understand about it.
Essie actually made no “3-free” claims before this report came out, and that brand tested positive for camphor, Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) and N-ethyl-o tolueneulfonamide, both plasticizers, along with other ingredients that they disclose.
They’re not hiding anything, and although the brand is now claiming 3-free, it’s not so great. I’m sad that I bought some now that I’m diving deeper!! #greenwashed
As far as research goes, triphenyl phosphate has one of the strongest trails of “it will actually hurt you,” so any nail polish that still uses TPHP is fooling you if the brand tries to say it’s more natural.
And it really does matter – endocrine disruptors have their greatest effect in the womb (listen up, pregnant mamas!!) and as children go through puberty.
Since “97% of U.S. girls aged 12-14 use nail products, and 14% of all teen and tween girls use nail products on a daily basis,” they’re being exposed just when it could do the most harm.
The question of nail permeability comes into play big time here, because TPHP combined with one of those products/solvents that increases nail permeability could be a toxic duet.
Bottom line: Say NO to Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) every time! Better to skip painting your nails than be a guinea pig!
Evaluating “Non-Toxic” Nail Polish Brands
To recap: The term “8-free”refers to the eight most common chemicals found in traditional nail polish – Formaldehyde, Formaldehyde Resin, Toluene, Dibutyl Phthalate (DBT), Camphor, Parabens, Xylene, and Triphenol Phosphate (TPHP) – some of which are toxic and damaging to the nail, many are carcinogens or nasal/lung irritants, some are highly flammable, many act as endocrine disruptors, and the list goes on.
The funny thing is that, like with any unregulated terms, hardly anyone really knows what is going on, and everyone is trying to get a “good” label.
Even in Allure’s roundup of non-toxic nail polishes, a ton of polishes that are probably pretty toxic standard formulas are listed, and Zoya brand, which as far as I can tell is “8-free” only got a 5-free rating.
Some of these “free” ingredients aren’t really found in ANY nail polish, so who cares if you’re “free” of it? I decided to go the other way in my final review and list the number of potentially toxic ingredients that a formula DOES include, with an asterisk if it includes any of those that seem more dangerous.
The Final Answer: What is the Safest Nail Polish?
There aren’t any that are perfect – but in my opinion based on research, the water-based brands have far fewer risks.
They are listed at the top, and this table is more or less in order of best to worst.
The problem of course is that the water-based polishes don’t stay on as well...I tested all these brands for longevity too, because that can matter! (With kids, for the record, I’d always use water-based. Not worth the risk and I’d rather it just come off without needing remover!! Here’s our best safe, natural nail polishes for little girls.)
Here’s our basic breakdown of the best non-toxic nail polish options!
If ingredients weren’t easily available online, we called the company to ask. See our reviews for a full list of each brand’s ingredients. We did sniff tests and tested each brand for durability, longevity, and ease of application!
If you’re on mobile, this is probably just about impossible to read. We have the results in a Google spreadsheet as well and will email that to you for reference:
|Water based?||TPHP free?||Price Range||EWG||Scent||Dur.||Ease|
|Prim and Pure||5+||Y||Y||$$ – $$$||N/A||1|
|Keeki Pure and Simple||8||Y||Y||$$||2|
|Suncoat||8||Y||Y||$$ – $$$||1|
|Karma Organic Spa||3||Y||Y||$$$||N/A||3-4|
|Poofy Organics||8||N||Y||$$ – $$$||2|
|100% Pure||5||N||Y||$$$ – $$$$||6|
|Bio Seaweed Gel||5||N||Y||$$$$||N/A|
|Ella + Mila||7||N||Y||$$ – $$$||N/A||4-5|
|Smith & Cult||8||N||Y||$$$$||N/A|
|Defy & Inspire||5||N||???||$$$$||N/A||4-5|
But How Do These Non-Toxic Nail Polish Brands Hold Up In The Real World?
Here’s where we dive deeper into the practical side: how smoothly the brands we’re testing go on, how long they last, and what hoops you might need to jump through to make them “cure.” Plus we got some other noses’ opinions on the smell intensity. Read all the non-toxic nail polish reviews here.
My friend Katie at Wellness Mama has a great review of non-toxic nail polish too, but she only lists 5. I go overboard with 24 different brands, including natural nail polish brands for kids and adults.