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The Most Toxic Ingredients in Your Nail Polish—and Safer Formulas to Try Instead

You may love a smooth, shiny mani, but it's time to take a hard look at the potentially toxic ingredients lurking in your go-to polish.

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Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a type of phthalate, is a plasticizer used to improve polish durability. DBP is also a suspected endocrine disruptor, which means it interferes with normal hormone function, and studies suggest a link between exposure to DBP and fertility issues and birth defects in lab animals. The results are similar to that of human phthalate studies. The European Union has banned the use of DBP in personal care products and California classifies it as a reproductive and hormonal toxicant—although the federal government has not officially recognized it as dangerous or made any kind of move to ban it. Do you know the five toxic chemicals that can clog your arteries? (Hint: Phthalates made the list).

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Toluene is a BTEX compound commonly found in varnishes, glues, gasoline, and nail polishes, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). This petrochemical and neurotoxicant causes nausea, dizziness and irritation of the skin, eyes, and lungs. Toluene inhalation during pregnancy has also been linked to birth and developmental defects. Here’s what else you can do to prevent birth defects before and during pregnancy.

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Formaldehyde is a preservative, widely used in embalming fluids, and it’s also one of the potentially toxic ingredients you use every day. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. Research suggests an association between formaldehyde exposure and certain types of cancer. While Canada prohibits its use in personal care products, the FDA has passed no such regulations, which means the onus is on consumers.

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Formaldehyde resin

There’s a lot of debate surrounding formaldehyde resin. “Many people feel that if you are avoiding formaldehyde you should avoid all varieties of it, including formaldehyde resin,” says Ruth Kallens, founder of Van Court in NYC. While there isn’t conclusive research that formaldehyde resin is carcinogenic, the EWG does classify it as both a skin irritant and immune system toxicant—and yet the FDA allows it in personal care products. And if ingredients like formaldehyde resin are lurking in your personal care products, it begs the question—what are the other secrets the beauty industry doesn’t want you to know?

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Camphor comes from the wood of the camphor tree. Synthetic camphor, which is what’s used in polish, is highly toxic. Extended and excessive exposure to the fumes can cause nausea, dizziness, headaches, and disorientation, making it particularly concerning for nail technicians. If you’re looking to book a gel manicure, ask for a polish formula that is 5-free, meaning it doesn’t contain certain toxic chemicals including camphor.

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Xylene, like toluene, is a BTEX compound found in petroleum products, paint thinners, and nail polish. Short-term, low level exposure to this contaminant can cause headaches and dizziness, while long-term, high level exposure and can lead to respiratory, kidney, and gastrointestinal toxicity. Its presence in gasoline is part of the scary reason you should never let your child eat fresh snow.

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Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP)

Triphenyl phosphate is a plasticizer used in polish to improve flexibility. It’s also a furniture flame retardant and suspected endocrine disruptor. This controversial chemical has been shown to cause reproductive and developmental irregularities in animals. What’s more troublesome is that a Duke-EWG study found that TPHP enters the body through nail polish. Researchers reported that participants’ levels of diphenyl phosphate (DPHP), which is created when your body metabolizes TPHP, were seven times higher 10 to 14 hours after getting their nails painted. Learn more about the scary thing nail polish does to your body after you apply it.

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Safer options

Choosing the right polish is vital to growing strong, healthy nails. To make your weekly mani safer, ditch the dangerous chemicals. “When selecting healthier nail polish, it’s important to read the labels and look for products with the least hazardous chemicals in them,” advises non-toxic living expert Sophia Ruan Gushee. Another great resource is EWG’s Skin Deep database, which includes thousands of polishes free of the most dangerous chemicals. These days, there are plenty of safer options. Most brands currently offer nail polish that is either 3-free or 5-free. “If a formula is 3-free, it means there’s no dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, or formaldehyde; 5-free also excludes that ‘toxic trio’ plus formaldehyde resin and camphor,” says Amy Ling, founder of sundays. And now, you can also find 7-free, 9-free, and even 10-free formulas. Plus, many are also vegan and cruelty-free.

More good news: You don’t have to sacrifice shades for safety, as these non-toxic polishes come in a rainbow of hues, including the nail polish colors every woman should own. Beloved natural beauty purveyor RMS’s 6-free polishes coordinate with the brand’s color cosmetics offerings. Côte makes 7-free polishes in finishes ranging from neon and cream to shimmer and pearlized. OG non-toxic nail salon, tenoverten, has a collection of eponymous nail lacquers in everything from nudes to bold jewel tones. BASE COAT is a new brand offering long-wearing 8-free polishes that are also responsibly made, vegan, and gluten- and cruelty-free. Notable 9-free brands include Acquarella and Londontown. A top 10-free brand is Zoya, with 467 amazing colors, including formulas with glitter and pixie dust. The award for the purest—10-free, non-toxic, cruelty-free, and vegan—non-toxic polishes on the market goes to 100% Pure and sundays, whose colors come in fashion-forward shades like teal, sky blue, and ruby red.

Lindsay Cohn
Lindsay Cohn has a B.A. in Creative Writing & Communications from the University of Miami. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Brides, Fodor's, Travel + Leisure, PureWow, USA Today, and more.