No Toxins, No Harm


Of all the members in your beauty arsenal, nail polishes contain the most suspicious chemicals. With the beauty industry and the customers getting ingredient-conscious, even the polish formulations are changing. Aparrna Gupta tells you how to flaunt your coloured tips, guilt-free!


Doesn’t the smell of your regular nail polish sometimes remind you of a pail of wall paint? Traditionally, a conventional polish has certain ingredients such as toluene, formaldehyde, DBP which have over the years earned a dubious reputation. Are these chemicals really bad for us? Scientifically speaking, while the said chemicals on their own have certain side effects, there are not many definitive studies that show that nail polish alone is enough to cause any real harm. However, these could hold true in case of children or those adults who are likely to chew on their nails and end up ingesting much of the polish.

But since the risks outweigh the potential benefits, even the nail brands transformed themselves to keep up with the shifting consciousness of their customers. Take for instance, how OPI (one of the leading commercial players) reformulated their nail polish a few years ago to remove perceived toxic threats. “While it’s debatable if the regular nail polish can give you cancer, it is certainly very capable of leaving you with nail infections and rashes around the skin. Paraphenylenediamine or PPD (found in nail polishes and hair dyes) may cause the disruption of the nail matrix. If the nails are infected, it could lead to some secondary infection on any part of the body, including the face,” explains Dr. Satish Bhatia, cutaneous and cosmetic surgeon.


Many R&D teams argue that the amount of toxic chemicals found in a nail polish is not in concentrations to cause an actual health risk to the end-user. But there have been reports where technicians at salon and workers in manufacturing plants who are exposed to higher concentrations have faced certain health risks. With the beauty industry turning a green leaf, even the nail bar has to transform. There is an increased consciousness amongst the customers who are ready to go an extra mile for a product that’s safer for them and also for the people connected. The new nail formulations are god sent for animal and environment lovers as they are easy not just on human skin but the ecosystem at large.

Decoding toxin-free polish


Recently, there has been a lot of talk about ‘Big 3/4/5 Free’ nail polish, with some brands victoriously claiming that they are ‘9/11/13 Free’. Even a lay consumer understands that these polishes don’t have as many of the harmful chemicals. But what exactly does it mean? Let’s get started.

3-Free Nail Polish
Also known as the Toxic Trio, big-3 free nail polishes do not contain the following three chemicals:

Formaldehyde, a hardener that is often found in treatment products and nail protectors, but has earned a reputation of being a carcinogenic.

Toluene is a solvent that makes the product easy to apply. However, on the flipside it causes dry skin, also dizziness and headaches.

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a plasticiser that prevents chips and cracks, has again being linked to cancer. Health concerns also include problems in endocrine system and increased risk of diabetes.

3-free nail polishes are now relatively common and most conventional brands have updated their formulae to be free of the toxic-trio. However, certain chip-free formulas often still contain these ingredients so always read the labels.

5-Free Nail Polish
The gen X nail polishes are ‘5-Free’. Besides formaldehyde, toluene and DBP, the formulations are also free of formaldehyde resin, and camphor. Formaldehyde resin is a by-product of formaldehyde and preliminary studies show that can cause severe skin irritation and allergic reactions, skin depigmentation and even loss of nerve sensation. Camphor is the ingredient used to give conventional nail polishes their glossy, shiny appearance. It is definitely less toxic than the other four ingredients listed above, and is in fact used for its medicinal properties. But camphor has been shown to trigger severe skin irritation and allergic reactions when applied topically. It can cause nausea, dizziness, and headaches when inhaled, especially in large doses, making it a health concern for nail technicians.

7/9-Free Nail Polish
7-Free nail polishes go even further and tend to remove ingredients like ethyl tosylamide and xylene. Ethyl tosylamide increases the durability of nail polish products and helps in increasing adhesion of the polish to the nail surface. It is a sulfur-based antibiotic and is banned in Europe for use in cosmetics since it can cause mild to severe allergic reactions. Being an excellent dewaxer, xylene is an additive commonly used in nail paints so as to let the pigment adhere better to the nail surface. Xylene exposure symptoms include headaches, dizziness, and nausea or vomiting. 9-free nail polishes claim to be free of parabens, and lead too. It does get a little tricky in this zone as many times, a brand may include ingredients in the ‘free-of’ claim that are not typically used in nail polishes anymore, such as xylene.


About the author

Aparrna Gupta