First nail polishes were “3-free,” then “10-free” and “15-free” — but they could just as easily be “100 million–free” because they don’t contain chocolate or radon or dried rhino horn. As this numbers game mounts, we decided to find out which ingredients you really need to avoid.
It’s a shortlist, says Evan Rieder, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City: formaldehyde (a carcinogen and skin irritant that makes polish shine and resist chipping), toluene (a nail polish solvent that may also be a neurological toxicant), and butyl phthalates (plasticizers for making polish flexible that have been banned from polish by the European Union as potential reproductive toxicants). It still doesn’t hurt to do your own research, though — a study published in the journal Dermatitis in 2019 found four out of 28 lacquers claiming to be “formaldehyde-free” actually contained formaldehyde. Look out for the other names formaldehyde can go by: formalin and methylene glycol.
But the research just isn’t there to say whether the other stuff that brands advertise leaving out — like xylene, gluten, and camphor — is harmful or penetrates nails, says Rieder. Gluten is in some nail strengtheners, but that’s not going to affect you (unless, maybe, you eat it). And while it’s possible that you could have a skin allergy to some of the other ingredients, like xylene, you’d know that pretty quickly — you’d get redness, scaling, and itching around your nails after a manicure.
But “clean” polish is really about the inhalation risk, so even though some of the chemicals (like camphor and acetone) in lacquers are probably fine on your nails, it’s still not a good idea to breathe them in large quantities. One of the best things you can do, says Rieder, is paint your nails in well-ventilated areas.
And if you prefer to play it super-safe and avoid ingredients you’ve heard nasty yet unproven rumors about, many brands are ready to fill that need with lacquers that aren’t filled with some of the most unrequested ingredients. Here are some of our favorite extra-cautious, nontoxic nail polishes.
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