Nail polish ingredients


Written by Caroline – Salve Regina University 62 Comments

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If you’ve been following my articles here at CF, you probably know that nail polish isn’t just a hobby for me – it’s an obsession. So, years ago, when I first found out that some polishes contained some pretty nasty chemicals, I immediately began to research these ingredients, and to search for safe alternatives.

The main nasty chemicals found in nail polish? Formaldehyde, Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), and Toluene. These ingredients can typically be found in many less expensive polishes – scary, I know. On the upside, many big name companies are realizing that their consumers won’t buy polishes containing these three chemicals and have removed them from their ingredients.

Below, I’ll explain what these ingredients are, and why you don’t want them in your polish, as well as list some brands who don’t include these chemicals in their products.


When I started researching this stuff, this was the only ingredient of the three that I had actually heard of before and finding that this was in my nail polish totally grossed me out! The reason? Formaldehyde is typically used as a preservative, a sterilizer, and to embalm bodies. It’s also used in particle board and plywood because of its adhesive properties. (Yes, that means your IKEA furniture probably contains formaldehyde as well.)

Though it is less commonly included in nail polish these days, formaldehyde is often added to nail hardeners, and many nail companies include nail hardeners in all of their colored polishes as an added bonus. Not a great bonus in my opinion, considering that formaldehyde has been connected to lung and nasal cancer, and is considered a known carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

So, while you probably aren’t going to develop cancer just because you painted your nails with a formaldehyde-containing polish (unless you drink or inhale the polish, which I’m going to have to advise against), I would still personally avoid any products containing this chemical – it’s just not worth the risk.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

This chemical is used to make plastics that are extra-flexible; think shower curtains, rain boots, hairspray, and plastic wrap. Its goal in nail polish? To ward off cracks, chips, and all those other issues that make us cringe when they happen to our freshly-painted nails.

While DBP is not believed to be a carcinogen, it has been linked to reproductive issues if the mother is exposed to it while pregnant. While companies are still allowed to put it into products in the US (though it has been phased out by most major nail polish manufacturers), it has been banned for use in cosmetics by the European Union. That, to me, sends a clear message that this chemical is one to watch out for, and even though the US hasn’t banned it, it’s still a scary substance.



Often included in polish to make it apply more smoothly, toluene is another scary chemical that can be found in many polishes. Nail polish isn’t its only application, though, it is also included in gasoline as an octane booster, and is also used as a raw material to create TNT.

Toluene has been known to affect the nervous system and to cause dizziness, headaches, eye irritation, nausea, birth defects, developmental abnormalities, and liver and kidney damage. I don’t know about you, but those potential side effects do not sound worth it to me. Again, this chemical has also been banned by the European Union, but not by the US.

Avoiding “The Big Three” – Safe Polish Recommendations

Now that we’ve gone over the basic uses of these chemicals, and their potential hazards, I have some good news! In recent years, most big nail polish brands have become aware of these harmful substances (and that people won’t buy polish containing them), and have removed them from their formulas! These days, it’s easier than ever to avoid these chemicals.

Some of my favorite brands that have eliminated these 3 nasty ingredients are: OPI, most China Glaze polishes (check the label to be sure), butter LONDON, Essie, Sally Hansen Salon, MAC, Rescue Beauty Lounge, Wet n’ Wild, NYC, Deborah Lippmann, Chanel, and Zoya.

And that’s just the beginning – there are many more brands out there that have gone without these 3 ingredients. In fact, going “clean” almost appears to be the new standard in nail polish, which is very exciting! As a polish lover, I hope to someday see all brands eliminate these ingredients from their formulas.

What do you think?

What do you guys think of these 3 ingredients and their inclusion in nail polish? Do you wonder about any other polish ingredients? Do you want to know of other brands that avoid these chemicals or some more natural brands? Let me know in the comments!

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