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The Best Nontoxic Nail Polishes

Our Customers Asked:

What are 3-4-5- free nail polishes?
What are 3-, 5-, 7- and 9-free nail polishes?
What are the best nontoxic 3-, 5-, 7- and 8-free nail polishes?

Our Experts Answered:

Of all beauty staples, nothing smells more toxic than nail polish, but these days, you can’t always judge a book by its cover.

“Nontoxic nail polishes still deliver high shine and excellent color payoff”

Back in the ‘90s, all nail polish was generally rife with fumes and formaldehydes. Fortunately, there are pretty clear standards these days on what toxic and potentially harmful chemicals cannot be included in your favorite glossy coat—and these what these numbers represent. What’s even better? Technology is on our side and, despite eliminating these traditional ingredients, nail polishes still deliver high shine and excellent color payoff.

The numbers represent:

3: Free of: Formaldehyde, toluene, DBP (dibutyl phthalate).
4: Free of: Formaldehyde, toluene, DBP + tosylamide/formaldehyde resin.
5: Free of: Formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, and camphor.
7: Free of: Formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, and xylene.
8: Free of: Formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, xylene, ethyl tosylamide, and triphenyl phosphate.
9: Free of: Formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, xylene, ethyl tosylamide, parabens, and acetone.
10: Free of: All of the above plus parabens, fragrances and animal ingredients.

Our Recommendations: The Best Nontoxic Nail Polishes

5-Free Nail Polishes: Deborah Lippman and Nails Inc. London
8-Free Nail Polishes: Smith & Cult and Oribe

Knowledge Is Power: The 10 “Free Of” Ingredients in Nail Polish and What the Concerns Are


  • Formaldehyde plays a dual role in nail polishes. It acts as a nail hardener and is often found in nail polishes that claim to have nail-strengthening properties. It’s also a solvent and used to disinfect nail care products in salons.1
  • Short-term exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to skin irritation, wheezing, watery eyes with a burning sensation, nausea as well as coughing. The EPA classifies formaldehyde as a probable carcinogen (cancer-causing chemical) whilst the International Agency for Research on Cancer recognized formaldehyde as a human carcinogen, associating it with nasal and lung cancers.2

Dibutyl Phthalate (aka DBP)

  • DBP is added to nail polishes to make it more flexible and less prone to flaking, chipping or cracking, making it more long-lasting and easier to apply. 3
  • DBP has been linked to reproductive tract issues. Some studies have found that it may cause miscarriages and birth defects as well. It has been banned in Europe for use in cosmetics for the same reasons. 4


  • Toulene is a commonly used solvent and thinner and basically used to provide a smooth finish of the nail polish across the nail. It’s also used to keep the pigment well distributed throughout the nail polish.
  • Toulene has been said to affect the central nervous system, and sudden toxicity can bring about euphoria, hallucinations, dizziness as well as more serious conditions.5

Tosylamide/Formaldehyde Resin 

  • This is a polymeric resin that is formed with the reaction of formaldehyde with toluenesulfonamide – together with nitrocellulose, it makes the nail polish tough, durable and also adds to the gloss factor. 6
  • There have been reports of tosylamide/formaldehyde resin mildly irritating the eyes.


  • While camphor is a naturally occurring ingredient from the camphor tree, it can also be synthesized. It is used as an odorizing agent and also softens synthesized polymers, thereby adding further flexibility to nail polishes. 7
  • The inhalation or ingestion of camphor is linked to irritating the skin as well as inner linings of the nasal cavities. Higher exposure may cause abdominal pain, wheezing, mental confusion and seizures. 8


  • Xylene is a solvent used primarily in paint, gasoline and dentistry. Being an excellent dewaxer, it is an additive commonly used in nail paints so as to let the pigment adhere better to the nail surface.
  • Xylene exposure can occur via inhalation, ingestion, eye or skin contact. The main symptoms reported include headaches, dizziness, and nausea or vomiting. 9

Ethyl Tosylamide

  • Ethyl Tosylamide increases the durability of nail polish products and helps in increasing adhesion of the polish to the nail surface.
  • It is a sulfur-based antibiotic and is banned in Europe for use in cosmetics since it can cause mild to severe allergic reactions. It is also known to be a major hormonal disrupter that affects the endocrine function.10

Triphenyl Phosphate

  • Triphenyl phosphate is a substitute for phthalates and provides the same set of functions – it’s flame retardant and a plasticizer, meaning it provides a smoother nail coat with gloss and shine. 11
  • While more studies are needed to measure the toxicity of this chemical, research has shown that contact with this can alter the red blood cell activity at a minor level. 12


  • Parabens are basically added to nail polishes and other cosmetics as a preservative to prevent potentially harmful bacterial or mold growth. This allows the cosmetic to remain safe for use till its expiry date. 13
  • Contrary to popular belief, various studies and research have failed to link parabens to any serious or long-lasting health risks. 14


  • Acetone is a solvent and is commonly found in nail polish removers and sometimes also used to thin down coagulated or dried up nail polishes to give them a new life.
  • Chronic exposure to acetone can cause dermatitis and skin irritation.15


products mentioned in this post

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