Now, I'm no different than anyone else out there who loves a manicure / pedicure. Few things make us girls feel better than this ritual of primping and showing off shiny red toenails in a cute pair of sandals. But, recent attention given to the ingredients found in nail polishes and polish removers, not to mention the chemicals used to create artificial nails, have made many women forgo the nail salon for fear of filling their lungs and bodies with the toxic stuff we generally try to steer clear of on a daily basis.
So, what exactly is nail polish made of anyway? The formulation starts with a synthetic polymer solubilized in a chemical solvent. Various additives can be used to alter the flexibility / hardness of the film and other characteristics of the polish. Dyes and pigments are solubilized or suspended into the solution to provide a wide variety of color options and effects.
When we talk about the chemicals which are most concerning, we're mostly talking about the solvents (solubilizers) and plasticizers (ingredients which modify the polymeric film to be more flexible). Two specific ingredients whose safety has been called into question are the plasticizer, Dibutyl Phthalate and solvent, Toluene. While the polymers used to create a nail polish film are synthetic, they are not really the issue; although, the colorants typically used are either synthetics or iron oxides which may contain heavy metals. Preservatives are not needed in most conventional nail polish formulations because they are anhydrous formulations (waterless), so bugs could not survive! Fragrance may also be used, but the odor we're most accustomed to smelling comes from the solvents, which are responsible for the overwhelming odor of nail polish due to their volatility (they evaporate rapidly into the air we breathe).
In recent years, many nail polish manufacturers have responded to public concern about Dibutyl Phthalate and Toluene, therefore have reformulated and replaced these ingredients with others. Just what are those "other" ingredients? Let's take a look at a "typical" nail polish formulation. Below is the ingredient listing for a line of OPI Nail Polishes sold at Sephora:
Butyl Acetate, Ethyl Acetate, Nitrocellulose, Tosylamide/Epoxy Resin, Acetyl Tributyl Citrate, Isopropyl Alcohol, Stearalkonium Bentonite, Benzophenone-1, Silica, Trimethylpentanediyl Dibenzoate, Polyvinyl Butyral. May contain: [+/- CI 77891 (Titanium Dioxide), CI 19140 (Yellow 5), CI 15850 (Red 6, Red 7), CI 15880 (Red 34), CI 77491, CI 77499 (Iron Oxides), CI 77510 (Ferric Ferrocyanide), CI 77163 (Bismuth Oxychloride), Polyethylene Terephthalate, CI 77000 (Aluminum Powder), Mica, CI 77007 (Ultramarines), Calcium Aluminum Borosilicate, Calcium Sodium Borosilicate, Ethylene/VA Copolymer, Tin Oxide, CI 77120 (Barium Sulfate), CI 77742 (Manganese Violet).]
The first two ingredients, Butyl Acetate and Ethyl Acetate, are both solvents, as is Isopropyl Alcohol. These ingredients solubilize the polymers Nitrocellulose and Ethylene/VA Copolymer, while plasticizers Tosylamide / Epoxy Resin, Acetyl Tributyl Citrate, Trimethylpentanediyl Dibenzoate, Polyvinyl Butyral and Polyethylene Terephthalate are also added to create a solution, which when applied to nails, will create a durable, yet flexible film. Other ingredients are additives with different specialized functions: Stearalkonium Bentonite is a suspending agent (aids in preventing pigments from settling out), Benzophenone-1 is a sunscreen and Silica helps the pigments to spread evenly and also prevents settling. The remaining ingredients listed in brackets is an all-inclusive list of the various colorants and pigments which may be found in any of the shades in this particular range.
Given this list of mostly chemical-sounding names, it's no wonder women trying to "go green" with their beauty routines are turning to so called "natural" or "nontoxic" nail polishes. But, are nail polishes which claim to be natural or nontoxic really any better?
As a chemist who knows a thing or two about cosmetic formulations, and also knowing that the claim "natural" is an unregulated and much overused term, I had my doubts that these formulations would deliver on their promises. Upon researching a variety of these so-called "natural" nail polish brands, I was disappointed (but not surprised) to find that not only are they not natural, many do not even provide the full ingredient listing with correct cosmetic ingredient (INCI) names. In fact, many nail polish products, including those which score "safest" on the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics Database, list only general ingredient descriptions. (Side note, the lack of full disclosure of ingredients is WHY these products score so low / safe on the cosmetics database -just one of many loopholes / issues with this database).
Here is the ingredient listing for one such brand, Aquarella, as found on their website: Acrylic polymer emulsion, Water, and non-toxic colorants (No FD&C). You don't have to be a chemist to see that this ingredient listing is in stark contrast to the one from OPI shown above, which lists each and every ingredient that can be found in the product. The general description of ingredients provided by Aquarella tells us nothing about the specific chemicals used in their nail polishes. What exactly is in that "acrylic polymer emulsion"??
Not to single out Aquarella, I found many other brands which do not fully disclose their ingredients, including Honeybee Gardens, Scotch Naturals, Piggy Paint, and more. Others, such as Priti, make claims about their ingredients to "prove" their naturalness...but, just because the solvent Butyl Acetate has (as they mention on their website) "the sweet smell of banana", that doesn't make it natural or nontoxic. Butyl Acetate happens to be the primary ingredient in most conventional nail polishes too. So, is there any difference between "natural" nail polishes and "conventional"?
Generally speaking, I found there are two types of nail polish formulations claiming to be natural / nontoxic. First, water-based formulations, which obviously will include some water, polymer(s) and colorants. Notably, these types of formulations will also include a preservative (if they're really water based, they need a preservative to prevent bacterial growth). The water-based nail polish formulations I found (which disclosed the name of their preservative) were typically using an ingredient called Methylisothiazolinone, although some brands were calling it by one of its trade names (name used by the vendor), either Neolone 950 or Kathon CG.
The second type of nail polish formulations I found claiming to be natural / nontoxic are solvent based formulations, which coincidentally, are very similar to conventional nail polish formulations. In fact, the difference is, well...there is no difference -at least not from what I can tell. Both are using the same primary ingredients, butyl acetate, ethyl acetate and nitrocellulose, a variety of plasticizers and a variety of colorants. Those so-called natural nail polishes are typically not disclosing their complete ingredient listings, so who would ever know what the difference is anyway?
Check out my green beauty tip for nails, and remember...even though a product may not be entirely natural, that doesn't mean that you should feel guilty about using it. And, it doesn't mean you should make others feel guilty about using it either. Just know the facts, don't be fooled by marketing claims which are not true, and make the decisions that are right for you!
Have a question you'd like one of our experts to answer? Contact us here.