Caucasian woman selecting bottle of nail polish
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In recent years, consumer product safety organizations and watch groups have been screening and scrutinizing cosmetics for potentially carcinogenic and toxic ingredients. One shocking discovery was that nail polish was found to contain three major toxic chemicals, now referred to as the toxic trio—formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and toluene that have been proven to cause a host of health problems. Here are some facts about the toxic trio, as well as tips on how to choose safer nail polish and to protect you from harmful chemicals.


  • Why It Is Used: Formaldehyde is used as a preservative and a nail hardener and is usually found in nail strengtheners and treatments.
  • Potential Health Risks: Formaldehyde is linked to cancer, asthma, skin problems, nervous system disorders and can cause damage to the liver and kidneys. Formaldehyde is also found in other products like pressed wood, air fresheners, Brazilian Blowout Hair Straightener, as well as secondhand smoke.


  • Why It Is Used: DBP helps keep nail lacquer from becoming brittle and chipping.
  • Potential Health Risks: DBP is a possible human reproductive and developmental toxin that can cause reproductive problems and birth defects. It is also believed to be an endocrine disrupter, meaning that it can disrupt the natural balance of hormones in the body. Phthalates are also found in face creams, perfumes, and scented products.


  • Why It Is Used: Toluene is a petroleum-based solvent that gives nail polish its smoothness.
  • Potential Health Risks: It can irritate the eyes, throat, and lungs, cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, short-term memory loss, and damage the nervous system. In addition, it can harm fetuses and cause miscarriages.

(Related: The Best 3-Free and Non-Toxic Nail Polish Brands)


A major concern is that these chemicals can be inhaled and therefore be absorbed into the bloodstream. The liver works to rid the body of these chemicals and expel them from the system via the colon, urine, and sweat. Fighting off too many toxins can overwork the liver, causing it harm.

For more information on nail products and ingredients, safety visit the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website.


Limit your exposure to toxins by replacing solvent-based polish with safer nail lacquer formulations.

Many manufacturers of solvent-based nail polishes like OPI and Sally Hansen have made efforts to remove toxic chemicals. But if you’re still concerned, opt for more eco-friendly nail polishes that are water-based and solvent-free. Water-based polishes tend to be free of noxious fumes, which is also better for the environment. One downside is that they have a longer drying time and minor problems with texture and smooth application.

Just because a nail polish is labeled as natural, organic, vegan, or marketed as being “three free” meaning free of the toxic trio, doesn’t ensure that it is free of some potentially harmful substances. Unfortunately, nail polish needs plastics like polyurethane and copolymers, (believed to be endocrine disrupters) to bind the polish to the nails and make it more durable and flexible. However, a lot of the toxins have been reduced, making them better alternatives.

(Related: Natural Nail Polish – As Good As it Gets)


If the idea of refraining from nail salon visits and professional manicures and pedicures is out of the question, make sure the salon has well-ventilated areas. To make sure that your nail technician uses safer nail polish on you, take your own polish to the salon.

Avoid taking infants and children into nail salons or beauty salons where there will be toxic fumes. Reduce or stop visits to nails salons if you are pregnant.

If you are a manicurist or work in a nail salon, make sure you are working in a well-ventilated establishment; wear facial masks, gloves, and long sleeve shirts or smocks, to protect your lungs and your skin from chemicals. Close bottles and other containers of products or substances that may have toxic chemicals and fumes when not in use.

When doing at-home manicures, use safer products and be sure to paint nails in a well-ventilated room. Sit near an open window or use a fan to blow fumes outside.


Some nail polish brands that are water-based are Spa Ritual, Firoze, Honey Bee Gardens, Earthly Delights, and Acquarella. For more information on these and other nails, polish alternatives check Salon Alliance.Org’s Nail Polish Wallet Card (note that this information is from 2009), The Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Skin Deep Database, and this review of nail polish products by Pure Body Solutions.

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