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  • Writer's pictureValerieBound

Non-Toxic Nail Polish? YES!

As the mother of three girls, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done little girl mani/pedis. I’m also a big fan of mani/pedis for adults. But I hate the smell of nail polish. Sometimes when you go into one of those places in the mall, it’s overpowering. Yuck!

Turns out those gross fumes are from chemicals that cause cancer or other bad things, so of course I was thrilled to discover companies out there trying to create a better product. I do NOT want nail polish to go away! I DO want something that isn’t going to make me feel like I’m hurting my kids.

Some initial research on non-toxic nail polishes led me to what’s called five-free or three-free.

The Toxic Trio

A nail polish company called Butter London first coined the term “three-free” by marketing their products as free from the toxic trio of formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) back in 2006. OPI, Essie, and other companies soon followed suit and before you knew it, lots of nail polishes were touting how wonderful they were for you, and the environment.

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What’s so horrible about the toxic trio? Let’s start with formaldehyde, the human carcinogen. Formaldehyde is a preservative, it has a distinctive odor, and is used to harden and strengthen nail products. Oddly, it’s not even found in nail polishes. Only nail hardeners. It’s banned in Japan and Sweden.

Toluene is what makes your polish go on nice and smooth. It’s a solvent, also with a distinctive odor, and found in most conventional nail polish removers. Fumes from toluene are highly toxic. Europe restricts toluene in nail polish. California considers toluene to be harmful to fetal development.

DBP is used to prevent chips and cracks in your nail polish. It’s a plasticizer (makes hard things more flexible), but also an endocrine disruptor. In Europe, DBP is banned in cosmetic and personal care products. In Australia, DBP is considered a risk to the human reproductive system.

Three Free and More

Three-free quickly expanded to five-free and seven-free, with more toxic chemicals being removed from nail polishes. I thought all of this was great news, but I was really curious what I could find in my own community.

<img class=" wp-image-721 lazyload" src="" alt="" width="501" height="376" srcset=" 1440w, 300w, 768w, 1024w, 370w, 1040w" sizes="(max-width: 501px) 100vw, 501px" /> A whole lot of essie nail polish!

Look locally

I live in Washington state in a city that’s NOT Seattle. We’re primarily agricultural, conservative in our values and our shopping. I wasn’t sure a market for expensive and/or environmentally friendly nail polishes even existed!

So, as much as I love to shop online, I ventured out to my neighborhood Ulta and took a look around. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I was able to find.

<img class="wp-image-753 lazyload" src="" width="376" height="502" srcset=" 810w, 225w, 768w, 370w, 1040w" sizes="(max-width: 376px) 100vw, 376px" /> My daughter shows me her favorite color of polish from Butter London.

Essie is a three-free nail polish, and Ulta had TONS of shades! There was also an excellent selection of Zoya (which is five-free!), and Butter London (it says three-free right on the front). I found Deborah Lippmann polish on the sale shelf, $9 (was $18). Of course, I had my favorite shopping partner, my lovely daughter, along to help me pick out just the right colors to go home and “test.” I will say I had expected most polishes to be $10 and up. Again, I was pleasantly surprised to find they were all in the $5 to $9 category. Not too bad!!!

I had done research ahead of time about companies who produce less toxic polish, so I knew brands to look for. But I thought I’d ask the sales people if they knew of any less toxic brands. Two said they weren’t sure, but one pointed me very confidently in the direction of the Butter London display. Impressive, Ulta! Only two brands noted their commitment to less toxicity on the bottle itself – Butter London and Deborah Lippman.

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The Results

Upon arriving home and consulting the panel of experts that is my children (thanks girls!), we methodically conducted manicures and pedicures with our new bottles of polish. I’m pleased to report all nail polishes went on nice and smooth, had good staying power,  and looked really great.

That being said, I didn’t really notice a difference in the odor. They all smelled just as yucky as my regular nail polishes. I realize that eliminating odor is not exactly the point of using less toxic ingredients, I had just hoped it would be a nice side benefit. Sadly, nail polish needs to have solvents so that it can be applied as a liquid and then dry on your nails. And solvents are what cause the odor. So while you eliminate one toxic solvent (toluene), you simply replace it with another.

Overall, I’m impressed with all the companies who are doing their part to eliminate toxic chemicals to products we use. From now on, I’ll do my part to support them. What do you think? Have you tried any of these polishes? Let me know in the comments.

<img class=" wp-image-677 lazyload" src="" alt="" width="501" height="376" srcset=" 1440w, 300w, 768w, 1024w, 370w, 1040w" sizes="(max-width: 501px) 100vw, 501px" /> Non-toxic brands: butter, Deborah Lippmann, Zoya, and Essie

More details on all the less toxic nail polishes below:

Three Free

No formaldehyde, toluene, or dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

Examples: Essie, Butter London (also paraben free), OPI

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Five Free

“Five free” nail polishes are free of the same things as “three free” plus two more –  formaldehyde resin or camphor.

Formaldehyde resin is a by-product of formaldehyde. It causes skin irritation and allergic reactions.

Camphor gives nail polishes a glossy, shiny appearance. It is sometimes used in cold remedies such as vapor rubs and nasal sprays. Its fumes are dangerous and it causes skin irritation when applied. In Europe, it is being phased out.

Examples: Zoya (also vegan)

Seven Free

This is where it gets a bit confusing, and I don’t see a lot of consistency. Nail polishes marketed as seven-free don’t have any of the five-free ingredients PLUS no xylene. But that’s only six toxic chemicals. The 7th could be ethyl tosylamide, triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), or paragons. They’re all bad, and I talk about why below. But seven-free nail polishes don’t all limit the same ingredients.

Xylene is another solvent (keeps your polish from getting gloppy), and possible human carcinogen. Inhaling it is dangerous.

Ethyl tosylamide is another a plasticizer. It’s banned in Europe and studies indicate it’s a possible endocrine disrupter.

Parabens are preservatives, they’ve been used in products to prevent bacteria growth since the 1959’s. Unfortunately, they mimic estrogen and could trigger hormonal problems.

Examples: Deborah Lippman, Pacifica (also vegan, gluten free, and cruelty free), Piggy Paint, Ella + Mila (also vegan, fair trade, and cruelty free)

Piggy Paint and Deborah Lippmann are also Made in the USA.


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