Can Nail Polish Be Natural?

red nail polish bottle dripping on white tableLet’s get real: No matter how many “natural” labels get slapped on the bottle, most nail polishes do contain chemicals—some of which can be dangerous to our health, and to the environment.

Even so called “non-toxic” polishes should be disposed of as hazardous waste, according to Earth911.

Remember, unless a beauty product is USDA Certified Organic, its manufacturer is not required to list ingredients on the label. Which is why we get “fragrance,” and it can mean three thousand different chemicals.

But I digress. Everyone uses nail polish at least once in a while. Here’s what you need to know.

Polishes have been busted for hidden ingredients like formaldehyde resin, which may not be listed on labels.

Bye Bye, Big Three. Hello, Resin!

Most of the major polish brands have gone “big three free,” meaning they’ve taken the most well known toxic ingredients—formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate (DBP)—out of their formulas.

Especially excellent is the lack of DBP, a pesky little chemical that’s banned in the European Union because it’s been linked to birth defects.

But some polishes still contain chemical solvents, typically acetate derivatives (that’s the stuff that makes it stinky). And some have gotten flak for hidden ingredients like formaldehyde resin, which may not be listed on labels.

OPI is one of those brands: The industry’s biggest name has taken the toxic trifecta out of their best-selling polishes, but do include formaldehyde resin and acetate derivatives in their formulations.

According to OPI chemist Paul Bryson, whom I spoke with in 2009, the difference between formaldehyde and formaldehyde resin can be confusing. “Formaldehyde is one of the raw materials that is used to make resin, but…when the resin is made, the formaldehyde molecule is torn apart: part of it becomes a water molecule and part of it is incorporated permanently into the resin molecule.”

A Trace of Acetate

Orly revolutionized nails when founder Jeff Pink introduced the French manicure in 1975. His daughter-in-law Shel Pink was one of the first—in 2004—to create a vegan polish that eliminated DBP, toluene, formaldehyde (and formaldehyde resin), as well as other and petrochemicals.

Although the formulations do include butyl and ethyl acetate, the color selection and hipness factor can’t be beat: SpaRitual is the polish of choice for ecoistas everywhere. Love this mini trial kit: SpaRitual Meditate Mini Nail Lacquer Kit

Just Add Water

Looking for big-three and petrochemical-solvent free—including acetates? Look no further than water-based polishes like Scotch Naturals. These polishes use the aforementioned H20 as a solvent, won’t yellow the nails and aren’t considered hazardous materials.

When you first use water-based polish, you may notice that it peels and chips because the polish is drawing away the solvents that your old polish left behind, but after a few treatments with water-based polish, you’ll never know the difference. Make sure to buff away surface oils before applying so they last longer.

I am OBSESSED with this nude color: Scotch Naturals Non-Toxic Nail Polish, Neat



  1. Looks like zoya is a good bet too. I use this one often and am glad to see it’s missing the big three.

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