Why 'Non Toxic' Nail Polish Still Contains Harmful Ingredients

Best non toxic nail polish. Woman applies nail polish.

Painted nails on a special occasion are a joyful thing for many, us included! Please enjoy when you do, but be aware that they are not a natural nail polish. These "x free" polishes still contain harsh synthetic chemicals that would not be accepted in any other natural body product.

First there were “3 free” polishes without the toxic trio of dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde. Now, we see up to “13 free” polishes marketed as healthy nail polish, even organic nail polish.

Yet, while the brands tell you what they are "free from", most are not upfront about what they do still contain.  

Why Biome no longer stocks nail polish

Our purpose is to empower you to see through the greenwash and provide solutions that are better for you and the planet.

We know that our customers trust that all the products we offer are toxin free.  So, even though some may be considered "low tox nail polish", we weren't comfortable with the contradiction in standards and stopped selling nail polish four years ago.  

For us, we feel it's better to promote a natural and environmentally-sound nail care approach. See our tips at the end of this post on how you can achieve naturally beautiful nails!

What is "x free" nail polish?

Here we will delve more deeply into the chemicals that are still used in “x free” nail polish. We refer to "x free" as the popular polishes in Australia marketed as non-toxic, natural, healthy, plant-based or breathable because of what they leave out.

We compared those Australian nail polish brands with several “regular nail polishes”. As you'll read below, we discovered that the ingredients are for the most part the same!  Part of the problem is when brands remove certain chemicals to be “free of”, they need to be replaced by a similar functioning chemical. 

A study from the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 2018, raised this issue. The study co-author said it was like playing a game of chemical tiggy, where one toxic chemical was removed and you ended up chasing down the next potentially harmful chemical substituted in. (1,2)

How is nail polish made?

With a greater understanding of what goes into polish, you can look past the buzzword claims and draw your own conclusion on 'is nail polish toxic?'

Plastic and Solvent: Nail polish is a liquid plastic that sets to a hard substance when exposed to the air. This happens because the solvent evaporates. A film-forming polymer (plastic) is dissolved in a solvent (often an alcohol) with the most common being nitrocellulose that is dissolved in butyl acetate and ethyl acetate. Every one of both the “x free” and regular polishes we looked at started with these three same ingredients, as you can see in the table snapshot below.

Plasticisers are added to make the film pliable and less brittle, such as the banned dibutyl phthalate, camphor, and isosorbide dicaprylate.

Dyes, pigments, opalescents such as chromium oxide greens, ferric ferrocyanide, titanium dioxide, carmine, mica, bismuth oxychloride, natural pearls, and alumina, fish scales.

Adhesive polymers to adhere the nitrocellulose adheres to the nail's surface: such as tosylamide-formaldehyde resin.

Thickening agents to keep the sparkling particles in suspension: commonly stearalkonium hectorite.

Ultraviolet stabilisers resist colour changes when the dry film is exposed to sunlight: commonlybenzophenone-1.

Synthetic Fragrance to mask the smell and preservative.

Nail polish ingredients

The ingredients in every polish we looked at, both those touted as natural nail polish and the regular well-known brands (such as OPI, Revlon, Covergirl, Sally Hansen), were remarkably similar!  We did not look at any 'no name', cheap imported brands that we recommend avoiding in all instances.

Non toxic nail polish assessment

Download the pdf of our assessment > and see the explanation at the end of this post of how the table works.

Notably, the first three ingredients were the exact same for every polish: Ethyl Acetate, Butyl Acetate, and Nitrocellulose. And, the next few ingredients were almost the same with a few differences in the order: Acetyl Tributyl Citrate, Adipic Acid/Neopentyl Glycol/Trimellitic Anhydride Copolymer, Isopropyl Alcohol.

As ingredients must be listed in order of most quantity to least, our estimation is that approximately 85% of the ingredients are the same whether a regular nail polish or an “x free”. Ingredients known to be irritants, suspected of harm, and environmental toxins that are restricted in some countries, were found in all polishes.

Concerning ingredients found in the regular polishes that were not in any of the “x free” included: Tetrabutyl Phenyl Hydroxybenzoate, Tosylamide/Epoxy Resin, Synthetic Fluorphlogopite, and the plasticiser Triphenyl Phosphate (TPHP) which is one of those introduced to replace the initial toxic trio, but is also suspected to be a reproductive and endocrine toxicant.

Conversely, petroleum-derived irritants found in the “x free” brands that did not appear in the regular brands included: Propylene Glycol, Polyurethane-67, PET, Glyceryl Linoleate, and Polymethyl Methacrylate. The most concerning ingredient Benzophenone-1, a known endocrine disruptor, was found in three of the “x free” polishes and some of the regular.

A side note: we also noticed that many brands and online retailers selling nail polish do not display the full list of ingredients at the point of sale on the website (considered best practice by the ACCC), rather they only put the “does not contain” list!

Ingredients of high concern in "x free/healthy" nail polishes

Benzophenone-1: Human endocrine disruptor - strong evidence (European Union). One or more studies show significant wildlife and the environment disruption. Human skin toxicant or allergen - strong evidence.

N-Butyl Alcohol: Found in every nail polish we looked at. Known human lung, skin, eye skin toxicant and irritant (EU). Classified as expected to be toxic or harmful (Environment Canada Domestic Substance List). Of particular concern for those working in Nail Salons who are exposed it all day because EU regulates that workplace exposure is restricted to low doses.

Dimethicone: Recommended restricted in cosmetics. Suspected to be an environmental toxin and be persistent or bioaccumulative (Environment Canada Domestic Substance List)

Propylene Glycol: Skin, eye or lung irritant, organ system toxicity, penetration enhancer.


We discovered there were few differences between the polishes marketed as less toxic and regular polishes, and yet these are the kinds of claims being made to differentiate the brands:

  • Natural & organic
  • Healthy polish
  • Alternative to regular nail polish
  • Eco polish
  • Toxin free
  • Ethical
  • Kind on you and kind on the planet
  • Properties of the plant materials imparting benefits despite their chemical composition being radically altered, and once applied to the nail they either evaporate or can not escape the polymer film.

How to achieve naturally beautiful nails

Natural nail care

Beautiful natural buff nails is all about giving your hands, feet and nails a whole lotta love, and nurturing their natural beauty, rather than covering up what you may see as imperfections.

Nails that constantly break or peel could signal being dried out. Frequent hand washing, washing the dishes (particularly with synthetic detergents), laundry and house cleaning, gardening, frequent manicures, hand sanitiser, dry weather, and even not drinking enough water, can all contribute to nails drying out.

In our blog post here we step you through 5 ways to look after your nails naturally, including some easy DIY recipes.



1) https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/nontoxic-nail-polish-may-still-contain-toxins/

2) https://time.com/5419483/nail-polish-chemicals/

How is the red colour in nail polish made?  Sometimes it may be from carmine, which is made from ground up cochineal beetles!  Read more here What is Carmine?

Our assessment table

The table was prepared in 2019 and summarises all the ingredients we found in "x free" polishes and compared whether they are also found in regular polishes.

EWG rating: refers to EWG's Skin Deep Database found at www.ewg.org Note that a “1” is the lowest hazard rating they give, but does not mean that it is safe nor natural, and must be assessed together with the data availability. Most of those with 1 rating are synthetic, petroleum-derived ingredients and they can still be an irritant or have ecological toxicity.

Reg: refers to the regular nail polishes we assessed (such as OPI, Revlon, Covergirl, Sally Hansen). We grouped and marked here if the ingredient was generally found.

A - G columns: a column for each of the nail polishes marketed as being healthier, eco, natural, ethical, “x free” options that we assessed. 


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