True Cellular Formulas Team - October 20, 2023

The Dangers of Nail Polish

A Deep Dive into its Toxic Ingredients


Nail polish, with its myriad of colors and finishes, has been a beloved staple in the beauty industry for decades. From the softest pastels to the most vibrant glitters, these tiny bottles promise to transform our nails into miniature canvases of self-expression. But as we increasingly scrutinize the foods we eat and the products we apply to our skin, it becomes equally imperative to be discerning about what we paint onto our nails. After all, what goes on our body can sometimes have as much of an impact as what goes inside it.

The Hidden Toxins in Nail Polish

Beneath the shiny exterior of many nail polish brands lurk a cocktail of chemicals, some of which are potentially harmful to our health. While it's true that not every brand or bottle will contain these toxins, being aware of them can empower consumers to make safer choices.[1]


A volatile solvent, toluene gives nail polish its smooth finish and helps it adhere to the nail plate. However, its potential health implications cannot be ignored. Prolonged exposure to toluene, especially in poorly ventilated spaces, can lead to:

  • Neurological problems: Symptoms can range from headaches and dizziness to more severe impairments like cognitive dysfunction and motor deficits.
  • Respiratory complications: Inhalation can irritate the respiratory system, causing coughing, shortness of breath, and even exacerbating asthma symptoms.
  • Potential for birth defects: Some studies have linked toluene exposure during pregnancy to developmental abnormalities in the fetus.
  • Immune system issues: Chronic exposure can compromise the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)[3]

DBP acts as a plasticizer in nail polish, granting flexibility to the nail coat and preventing it from becoming brittle. Its inclusion, however, comes with a set of alarming health risks:

  • Hormonal disruptions: DBP has been recognized as an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can interfere with the normal functioning of hormones in our body, potentially leading to a range of health issues.
  • Reproductive problems: Exposure has been linked to fertility issues and developmental problems in unborn children.


Often added to nail polish as a hardener and preservative, formaldehyde assists in preventing chipping and increasing the polish's shelf life. Yet, the convenience it offers is juxtaposed by a series of health hazards:

  • Respiratory problems: Breathing in formaldehyde fumes can cause immediate irritations such as coughing, wheezing, and a sore throat. For those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, these effects can be exacerbated.
  • Skin irritations: Direct contact can result in allergic reactions, including skin redness, itchiness, and even dermatitis.
  • Potential carcinogen: Long-term exposure to formaldehyde has been classified as carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Specifically, it has been linked to nasal and sinus cancers.

The Environmental Impact

Beyond personal health concerns, the widespread use and disposal of nail polish and its associated products come with significant environmental repercussions:

  • Pollution from nail polish removers: Acetone, commonly used in nail polish removers, can contribute to air pollution when its vapors are released into the atmosphere.[5] This not only deteriorates air quality but also poses health risks to humans and animals alike.
  • Non-biodegradable bottles: Many nail polish bottles are not easily recyclable due to the residual polish and chemicals inside. When discarded in landfills, they can take centuries to decompose, leading to prolonged environmental damage.
  • Water contamination: Improper disposal of nail polish or its removers can result in chemicals seeping into groundwater, affecting both aquatic life and humans who rely on this water source.[6]
  • Effects on aquatic life: Certain chemicals in nail polish, when introduced to water systems, can be toxic to aquatic organisms, disrupting ecosystems and food chains.

Choosing Healthier Alternatives

As consumers become more conscientious and demand transparency in product ingredients, the beauty industry has responded by formulating healthier alternatives. One can now find nail polishes that are less toxic and more eco-friendly.

  • Understanding "Free" Labels: Brands now advertise their products as "3-Free", "5-Free", "7-Free", etc. These terms refer to the number of toxic chemicals the nail polish does not contain. For example:
    • "3-Free" usually excludes toluene, DBP, and formaldehyde.
    • "5-Free" generally means the polish is free from the above three plus formaldehyde resin and camphor.
    • "7-Free" goes further, excluding the aforementioned five chemicals along with ethyl tosylamide and xylene.
  • Reading Ingredient Labels: Just as with food, it's crucial to read the ingredient list of nail polishes. Brands might claim to be "natural" or "organic," but without a thorough look at the components, one can't be certain.
  • Recommendations: While it's beyond the scope of this article to list every safe brand, researching and seeking out trusted natural nail polish reviews can guide consumers to make better choices. Some popular and respected natural nail polish brands include Zoya, Butter London, and Ella+Mila.

Safe Practices for Nail Care

Choosing a healthier nail polish is a significant step, but adopting safer practices during its application and removal can further protect one's health and the environment.

  • Ventilation is Key: Always apply nail polish in a well-ventilated space. This reduces the inhalation of fumes, which can be harmful in concentrated amounts.
  • Minimize Use: If possible, consider going polish-free occasionally to let your nails breathe. Alternatively, limit the frequency of your nail polish applications.
  • Proper Disposal: Do not pour leftover nail polish or remover down drains, as it can contaminate water sources. Instead, consider donating unused bottles or disposing of them through community hazardous waste collection programs.


In the modern world, where our health and the environment are intricately linked, the choices we make in our daily lives hold profound significance. Nail polish, while a seemingly innocuous beauty product, exemplifies how a small item can have larger implications for both personal health and the planet. By arming ourselves with knowledge and making informed choices, we can enjoy the beauty rituals we cherish without compromising our well-being or the environment. As consumers, our purchasing decisions have power, and by opting for safer, more sustainable options, we pave the way for a healthier, greener future.

  1. Turner, L. & Lupton, D. (2011). Like putting a drop of poison into a person's life: Exploring women's perceptions of chemical exposure from beauty products. Health, Risk & Society, 13(7-8), 637-654.
  2. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2003). Toluene. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. Yost, Erin E et al. “Hazards of diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP) exposure: A systematic review of animal toxicology studies.” Environment international vol. 125 (2019): 579-594. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2018.09.038
  4. IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. “Formaldehyde, 2-butoxyethanol and 1-tert-butoxypropan-2-ol.” IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans vol. 88 (2006): 1-478.
  5. “Acetone.” DCCEEW,
  6. Khalid, Madiha, and Mohammad Abdollahi. “Environmental Distribution of Personal Care Products and Their Effects on Human Health.” Iranian journal of pharmaceutical research : IJPR vol. 20,1 (2021): 216-253. doi:10.22037/ijpr.2021.114891.15088

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