3 Scary Ingredients Hiding in Your Nail Polish

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Nail polish

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!

30 thoughts on “3 Scary Ingredients Hiding in Your Nail Polish”

  1. Free of Toxic Trio isn’t enough for some brands. Snails (safe nails) is 6-free
    First WASHABLE (no acetone required to remove) nail polish made in France

  2. I wanted to add this website by the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) that has a searchable database which tells you the truth about ingredients. Some of the “safe” nail brands listed here are not. Sally Hansen is a big offender.


    …look at the phthalates in red (the highest level of toxicity), and Sally Hansen has these phthalates and others in their products.
    Also know this: Just because the FDA considers it safe, do your own research, as the FDA is slow to or doesn’t monitor personal products at all. Much information comes out after its too late and the damage to our health has been done.

  3. To everyone that say these chemicals are not harmful. I say u don’t know s***. It took me 13 years and a lot of money to have children and when we went and had DNA test done. They found that I have some DNA twisted. Later after doing a lot of research from alot of people with degrees, they tell me that it could be from one or all of these chemicals. Now that I’ve got my children, they now have the same DNA twists that I do and other health and learning disabilities. So when you tell people that these chemicals can not hurt your lying!!!

  4. I avoid using nail polish because it makes my nails extremely soft. Is this the result of one of these ingredients? Or could it be something else? Except for having to take a thyroid med, I have no health problems.

  5. No offense- this is a little absurd. The amount you would have to consume to actually feel any side effects is a truckload. It’s a small amount that goes on your nails. Don’t bathe in it and you’ll probably be fine.
    While I appreciate the concern, I really think statistics that showed the effects on consumers should have been reviewed and then displayed. I doubt anyone got lung cancer from nail polish. Morticians and scientists use Formaldehyde on the regular and they’re probably not this cautious.
    I really like CF but perhaps we should stick to fashion and less science- unless you have hard rock evidence to back this up.

  6. I haven’t worn nail polish in years because of an allergic reaction to formaldehyde. My eyes swell up and get itchy within about 12 hours of polishing my nails.
    After reading several places about the removal of these chemicals I went and bought several bottles of Wet N Wild nail polish. Wore it since yesterday; and NO swelling or itching today. I’m hoping this lasts, and thank you for getting the word out there about this topic.

  7. What about the genex products that are used now? Do they have dangerous ingredients in their powers it base coats to your knowledge? Thank you for helping me with this information.

  8. I have been having issues with my stomach for several months, which was about the time I bought a new nail polish. I don’t wear nail polish that much before this, since I had read about bad effects a long time ago. Anyhow, I’ve been suffering for months and then recently, I decided to take off my nail polish that I had been wearing on my toenails. Problem gone within a few days. I literally did not change anything else and have been fine since. I only one person, but that is enough evidence for me to avoid np. I was using Essie nail polish.

  9. I think it doesn’t really madder, as long as we don’t eat the polish. If it was dangerous to touch or did something to our nails then that is a totally different situation.


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