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How to Avoid Toxic Nail Polish and Find Some Eco-Friendly Alternatives


It’s no surprise nail polish doesn’t fall into the category of all-natural products. In fact, reading nail polish ingredients is probably an afterthought to most consumers, even if bottles by mainstream brands sport labels. While the discussion on the toxicity of nail polish has withered as of late, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop and examine the issue from time to time.

In 2006, public health advocates raised questions about the so-called “toxic trio” of chemicals found in many popular nail polish brands. The “trio” consisted of the carcinogen formaldehyde, a hardening agent, toulene, which helps distribute color evenly, and dibutyl phthalate, a plasticizer that prevents polish from chipping. While these toxins helped people achieve the finished look they wanted from a manicure, inhaling these chemicals could lead to developmental defects and cause damage to your nervous system and the environment over time.

Exposure to toxins poses considerable health threats to salon professionals and children. Following the initial uproar, many brands removed these materials from their products. Manufacturers that state they are free of toxic trio materials are dubbed “three-free products.” This effort makes products safer to use for people and the environment, and increases transparency for consumers.

Notably, the European Union has banned the use of toxic chemicals in cosmetics for years now, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet taken any regulatory action. As such, a 2012 report by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control revealed that a number of products used in nail salons claimed to be “three-free” when in fact they were not. Of 25 products tested, including nail thinner and top coat polishes, only five out of three-free seven claims could be substantiated. Of course, the report noted that the department only tested a small number of products on the market today, the message was clear: not all manufacturers list ingredients truthfully on labels.

Rest assured, there are clean, toxic-free polishes already available. While there is no regulatory system in place yet, don’t go throwing out your polish collection. Here’s a rundown of popular brands and eco-friendly suggestions to help you shop smarter:

Mainstream Brands


  • Butter London – This self-declared “three-free” company was founded in London in 2005. They boast a wide variety of lacquers and top coats all made without the toxic trio and other harmful stances.
  • OPI –  This brand is one of the more popular “premium” polishes on the market. OPI is another safe bet when planning for your next manicure: their products have been three-free since 2006.
  • Essie – Essie Cosmetics founder Essie Weingarten began her company by selling small batches of unconventional colors to local salons. Today, she continues to sell special edition and seasonal colors. Her company made the switch to three-free soon after the toxic trio became a public health concern.
  • Wet ‘n’ Wild – Here’s a budget-friendly three-free option for you. Most bottles cost only $2, which makes experimenting with colors and designs even easier.

Bonus: Five-Free

A number of manufacturers go the extra step and specifically exclude formaldehyde resin and camphor from their polishes, in addition to the toxic trio. Both are non-toxic, but give consumers added safety in knowing potentially harmful ingredients are out of the picture. Here are a few brands that are proudly five-free: Chanel, Dior, L’Oreal, Revlon.

Eco-Friendly Alternatives

There are also a number of worthy, more natural polishes on the market. They might be a little harder to find in stores, but are worth the search. Why not give these environmentally friendly brands a try?

  • Scotch Naturals – These water-based polishes are made without a number of other toxins three and five-free brands already exclude.
  • Honeybee Gardens – This is another water-based brand that lacks the unpleasant smell you’d expect from solvent-based polish. You wouldn’t even need to buy a polish remover for these polishes: you can use rubbing alcohol or vodka to get the job done.
  • SpaRitual – If you’re looking for a cruelty and toxic-free option, try SpaRitual’s vegan polishes. They offer a range of other vegan products to complete your at-home pampering experience.
  • Piggy Paint – Piggy Polishes were created by a concerned mother doing research on the harsh chemicals found in the polishes her daughters wanted to wear. This brand is toxic-free, water-based, hypoallergenic, and of course, kid-friendly.
By Edwina Duenas
 Photo Credit: Helmetti


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Leesa Wheeler

Leesa A. Wheeler

Healthy Lifestyle Coach, Artisan, Author

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