is nail polish dangerous
Education, Personal Care, Toxins

Is Nail Polish Harmful to Health?

There is no denying the fact that the instant you walk into a nail salon or open a nail polish bottle you are overwhelmed by the potent smell of well… chemicals. We all pretend that we do not second-guess the connection between the highly toxic smell and applying it to our body, because we all adore the look and feel of having perfectly painted, clean and beautiful nails. But this is just one of the ways in which we choose to override our better judgment for our aesthetic pleasures, because giving those up are just too hard. So what I am proposing is that we actually take a risk, man up, and educate ourselves about this very process of painting our nails and how it contributes to a toxic body. Is Nail Polish Harmful to Health?

Before any of you stop reading, close the browser and continue to sweep this issue under the rug, I will tell you that if you scroll to the end of this post, there is a happy ending. I am a woman who LOVES finding a happy medium between living a truly healthy non-toxic life, while still maintaining my beloved girly ways. Because let’s be honest, giving up our right to feel beautiful is not going to lead us to an overall happy and healthy life. This is about the balance between the health of our body (and yes this means eliminating toxic practices) and the health of our mind and soul (which does include feeling beautiful, sexy and radiant). So let’s dive in!


Toxic Nails, Toxic Body


What is in Nail Polish Anyways?

If you know the answer already I am truly impressed. I think the majority of us have never even given a thought to what is actually IN nail polish and unfortunately the nail polish companies like it that way. Have you ever noticed an ingredients list on the back of the bottle? Nope. That is because the majority of nail polishes contain HIGHLY toxic chemicals that have been identified worldwide as being extremely dangerous to the human body. The highlights are termed “The Toxic Trio”:

1. Toluene

2. Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

3. Formaldehyde


* to learn in depth information about each toxin, click their links.


So why are these called “The Toxic Trio” you may ask?

Well, because they are known to cause the following:

1. Developmental Problems

2. Asthma

3. Birth Defects

4. Cancer, including uterine and testicular cancer

5. Infertility

 6. Damage to the Nervous System and Brain


More then Just Nail Color

Is Nail Polish Harmful to Health? You are not eating it after all…

The nails are actually quite porous and you do in fact absorb what is put on them, not to mention many people bite their nails so they are in fact actually consuming it. Furthermore, there is blood flow directly under the nail beds and therefore there is a direct pathway for the chemicals to travel right into your bloodstream. In addition, nail polish emits toxic gases, also known as VOCs (volatile organic compounds). VOCs, as stated by the EPA, are known to cause the following:

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.


Internal Exposure


What is the Risk?

Let’s think about this here. We all say that we only do our nails once and awhile, but the fact is that the nail polish stays on your nails for weeks at a time. So it is not a one time exposure, it is a daily exposure. Furthermore, we know how hard it is to get nail polish off, so we can only imagine the potency of these chemicals based on their adhesion properties. Furthermore, nail polish is hardly our only exposure to toxins. While the regulating agencies may say that the toxins are in such small amounts that they do not cause harm, are they taking into account the other toxins we are exposed to everyday? Do they account for the toxins we have no control over like our drinking water and air quality? Or even the ones that we do have control over like our toxic shampoo and conditioner, body and face wash and lotion, toothpaste, perfume, hair spray, deodorant, makeup, tanning lotion, and household cleaning products? If we made a list of your daily exposure it would be abundantly clear that even the simple exposure via nail polish can make a huge impact. In fact, one blogger I came across called The Glamorganic Goddess, started her blog because she got Breast Cancer at the age of 31 due to toxins from her personal care items. So the risk is real, it is compounding, and every bit counts.


Breast Cancer by Resurrection Rags


If it is so Toxic, then why is it Legal?

This is the big question with the very underwhelming answer. Unfortunately in this day and age, money comes before responsibility and therefore we as a consumer must take responsibility for ourselves. While we could point the finger at our government for not protecting us, we could also use that energy to educate ourselves and be our own protectors. Fortunately the information is out there if you seek to find it, and there are ways to rise above the egregious misinformation, false advertising, and lack of responsibility. While we wish that our governing agencies would rise above and take action like the E.U (which have banned all DBP and greatly limited the use of formaldehyde and toluene), we can vote with our dollar and force the companies to produce a product that is health conscious and aware. Remember, they will only make a product if it is profitable, and it can only be profitable if you buy it.




So How do I stay Beautiful and Toxin-Free?

Okay here comes the fun part! While there was a recent bust by the Toxic Substances Control Department determining that many so-called “toxin-free” nail polishes did in fact contain toxins, we now know better which companies are the real deal and which are just leveraging off the “green and toxin-free” consumer market. There are in fact quite a few companies that are manufacturing TRULY healthy alternatives that actually work!


Tina feet by Neeta-Mehndidesigner


The Healthy Choices:

1. Madnic Luscious non-toxic nail lacquer

2. Zoya professional non-toxic nail lacquer Contains Butyl Acetate, Ethyl Acetate, Nitrocellulose, Acetyl Tributyl Citrate, Isopropyl Alcohol, *Sterikonium Hectroite, Acrylates Copolymer, Styrene / Acrylates Copolymer.

3. Piggy Paint – non-toxic, odorless, kid-friendly, kid-colored, water-based formula

4. Honeybee Gardens – non-toxic water-based, odorless, can be removed by rubbing alcohol. Contains water, water-miscible acrylic, polyurethane formers and thickeners, non-ionic soaps. May contain: ultramarine blue, carmine, mica, iron oxides, and/or titanium dioxide

5. No-Miss – vegan, does not contain the “toxic trio” or camphor, made from naturally-derived substances. Contains nitrocellulose, n. Butyl Acetate, Mica, Titanium Dioxide, Iron Oxide (blue), Earth born colors, Zinc Oxide, and Ethylacetate. Ethylacetate has a 4-5 (moderate hazard) rating from Skin Deep claiming:

  • “The available data on the human health effects and mammalian toxicity of nitrocellulose generally suggest that it is virtually nontoxic.”

6. Acquarella – vegan, water-based nail polish, conditioner, remover and moisturizer. Contains styrene/acrylates copolymer, acrylates copolymer, mica, iron oxides, and water. Free of phthalates, aromatic hydrocarbons, and wheat byproducts.

7. Suncoat – water-based nail polish that has been recognized and honored by the Canadian Health Food Association

8. Gaiam – created by NYC’s first organic spa

9. Peacekeepers Cause-Metrics – created by the EWG (environmental working group)

10. Scotch Naturals – non-toxic, water-based nail polish. Part of Hopscotch Kids, which is the kids line

11. Spa Ritual – vegan nail lacquers, free of toxins

12. Karma Organic – contain no toluene, formaldehyde or DBP and are safe for pregnant women, kids, cancer patients and allergy sufferers. Chip resistant, durable, and with no harsh odors, they are available in glossy, matte and glow-in-the-dark shades. The non-yellowing formula is cruelty-free (not tested on animals).

Questionable Due to FD&C colors…

12. Priti – non-toxic, odorless, made without any known carcinogens. Contains Butyl Acetate, Ethyl Acetate, Nitrocellulose, Acetyl Tributyl Citrate, Phthalic Anhydride/Trimellitic, Stearalkanium Hectorite, Adipic Acid/Phthaic Acid/Tricyclodecan Dimethanol Copolymer and Citric Acid. Contains FD&C colors


What are Water-Based Nail Polishes?

*information taken from Honeybee Garden’s Nail Polishes

Conventional nail polishes are solvent-based.  Solvent- based polishes are simple solutions of nitrocellulose resins in strong solvents. Nitrocellulose is used because it forms a very hard film easily as the solvents evaporate from the base. These harsh, bad-smelling solvents are then also used to remove the polish by dissolving the film. By contrast, water-based polish uses an emulsion resin in the form of billions of very small particles suspended in water. As the water evaporates, the particles touch each other and form a hard film which is no longer soluble in water. At first, it may seem that these systems are similar, the only difference being the carrier base. But they are in fact as different as night and day. One cures by reversible solvent evaporation, the other by creating a tightly knit film. One is easily dissolved, the other not so easily.  Solvent-based polishes can strip healthy nails of naturally produced oils. Since our polish does not contain these solvents, the oils remain on the nail making it much healthier.

Image by Gemma Milly Illustration


My Healthy Beautiful Solution

I have tried the No-Miss nail polishes and have found them to be quite effective and they have a great selection of colors although I must say that they still have that toxic smell from the high alcohol content and can be drying to the nail. I will also say that I do not recommend their nail polish remover. It does not seem to work well at all and I always dreaded using it because it took my about 45 minutes just to get the color off. Not to mention the harsh effect on the nails.

I now use Karmic Hues by Karma Organic nail polish, which I LOVE along with Karma Organic nail polish remover, which I got turned onto by Joy McCarthy at Joyous Health. The Karma Organic nail polish remover is amazing, it works extremely well and it is made with vitamin E so it leaves your nails and hands feeling great. If you want to go out and get your nails done simply take off your nail polish before you go to the salon, bring your own tools and nail polish. Super simple solution where you can still enjoy the luxury of professional manicures and pedicures.


My Health Beautiful Solution


To find out more on which product is right for you, check out this great review post by No More Dirty Looks on Scotch.

If you want to read about the report from the Department of Toxic Substances go HERE.


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  • Reply Marie-Claude June 6, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    I’m not into nail polish a lot, but I loved your post. I am always glad to find a healthy alternatives to products I use on myself, my kid or my home. Thanks for sharing!

    • lauren
      Reply lauren June 7, 2012 at 3:19 pm

      Yes! Always good to have a good list for those special occasions 🙂

  • Reply RawGuru June 8, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    Great article, thank you Lauren! I’m the same way when it comes to finding that balance between maintaining my girly beauty rituals without being toxic. I haven’t been in love with any of the completely natural water based polishes out there. Love Joya but they still smell really toxic to me. Karma Organic nail polish sounds great though, i will have to try it out!

    • lauren
      Reply lauren June 8, 2012 at 9:19 pm

      Okay great suggestion, I was wary of JOYA since its sold at Whole Foods (typically I like to find brands online – smaller companies), but yes, Love Karma.

  • Reply jenny June 12, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    great post… thank you for the info as always lauren. i use butter polishes (nice colors and widely available at all ricky’s in nyc), are those as safe as i think?
    also, when i saw this post title i thought you were going into the ayurvedic approach of seeing nails as a window into your overall health… i always wanted to know more about that. may be an interesting topic for the future? 🙂

    • lauren
      Reply lauren June 12, 2012 at 6:29 pm

      Oh great suggestion! I will be working on that new post. I actually haven’t heard of the butter polishes… maybe you could send us the ingredients and we could look into it!

  • Reply nancy June 12, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    Thank you for this excellent and informative article! I love having polished nails and have been confused about which brands are truly nontoxic, especially after the negative media reports. Karma Organic’s spa is near my parents’ home (such a happy surprise) so I’m going to check them out next time I’m visiting.

    • lauren
      Reply lauren June 12, 2012 at 6:29 pm

      Oh yes!!! Please stop by! You can tell them how much we LOVE them 🙂 Keeping us healthy and pretty!

  • Reply Mary @ Fit and Fed June 15, 2012 at 1:45 am

    I was going to mention No More Dirty Looks and then you had a link to it at the bottom! I recently heard the authors interviewed on the radio, and I am interested in their book. I try to use minimal beauty products, but after listening to them I realized I am using some products that have parabens… there’s always more to learn and think about! Thanks for the reminder, I’m going to look for some healthier nail and skin products at my co-op.

    • lauren
      Reply lauren June 15, 2012 at 2:07 pm

      Ya they have a great website and are always up to date with all the new natural care products. Definitely a great resource!

  • Reply Sarah Mentock May 7, 2014 at 2:18 am

    Hi, Lauren,
    Thank you so much for this post! I was becoming ever more distressed over what I learned about nail products. I used to work in a lab, and for many years had a naphthalene taste in my mouth at times. The other day, I had run out of my less-toxic remover, and used acetone. What an idiot! There was the naphthalene taste again. Darn tooting, our nails are an integral part of our bodies. From now on, I’m going with organic alternatives!

    • Lauren aka The Holy Kale
      Reply Lauren aka The Holy Kale June 1, 2014 at 3:46 pm

      Oh great Sarah! There are sooo many non-toxic options now you dont have to give up on anything! Beautiful nails and health 🙂

  • Reply Morgan June 23, 2014 at 2:13 am

    Does anybody know anything about ELF products? Their nail polish doesn’t have the big three, but is there some other hazard I haven’t seen yet?

    • Lauren aka The Holy Kale
      Reply Lauren aka The Holy Kale July 12, 2014 at 2:25 pm

      Hi Morgan, I haven’t heard of them but go to – this website will let you know if its toxic or not.

  • Reply Jayme Lubben January 9, 2016 at 10:58 pm

    Hi Lauren,
    Thank you so much for this information. Another great non-toxic option for nail art lovers, is Jamberry Nail Wraps. They are non-toxic and last up to 2 weeks on fingers and 4-8 weeks on toes. Salon quality without the nasty salon chemicals :). I can email you the MSDS and would be happy to send you a sample if you would like to try them for yourself. You can learn more at

    • Lauren The Holy Kale
      Reply Lauren The Holy Kale January 19, 2016 at 4:32 pm

      Awesome! Thank you so much for the share. I know our readers are always looking for additional options and this sounds like a great one!

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