Trending – Nail Polish

In this post, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at nail polish and nail polish ingredients.

What is nail polish?

Nail polishes (also known as nail enamels or lacquers) are products used on nail beds primarily for aesthetic reasons. Nail polishes can include base coats, topcoats, nail hardness, polishes, and more. 
You can find nail polishes and nail products in nearly every color, many finishes (e.g., matte, glossy), and even scented. 
Adorning even dying nails (e.g., henna) is a practice going back to ancient times, while nail polish as we know it in the west is more of a modern invention with a market that continues to grow. Currently, 85%-90% of women worldwide use nail products (1).

Is nail polish regulated?

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates nail polish and nail polish ingredients as cosmetics. The FDA does not approve or test cosmetic products, including nail polish before they are available for sale (1).

Manufacturers are legally responsible for ensuring product safety when using the products as intended. If there is a safety issue, the FDA can and will test products and work with companies to issue recalls when necessary (1,2).

Nail products marketed as a treatment for nail ailments (e.g., treating fungus, etc.) are regulated and labeled as medications by the FDA because they can treat a medical condition (1). 

What types of nail polishes are on the market?

There are three main nail polishes: base coats, polish, and topcoats. 
Manufacturers design the base coat to even nail surfaces to provide an ideal base for pigmented polish. Pigmented polish is applied to the nail to achieve the desired look. We add a top coat to give the desired sheen (e.g., matte, glossy, etc.) and protect the pigments layer.

Some manufacturers design nail polishes as an all-in-one product rather than three separate products. 

What ingredients do we typically find in nail polish? 

Nail polishes often include a combination of the below ingredients (1,2,3).

Film formers ensure nail polishes dry hard and shiny.

  • nitrocellulose
  • cellulose acetate butyrate

Plasticizers provide flexibility and adhesion.

  • triphenyl phosphate
  • trimethyl pentanyl diisobutyrate
  • camphor
  • dibutyl phthalate

Resin improves adhesion, hardening, and gloss.

  • tosylamide/formaldehyde resin
  • tosylamide/epoxy resin
  • formalin
  • methylene glycol
  • tolunesulfonamide/formaldehyde resin

Solvent-extender keep nail polish in liquid form.

  • ethyl acetate
  • isopropyl alcohol
  • butyl acetate
  • toluene

Pigments provide color.

  • iron oxides
  • color lakes
  • mica
  • other FDA-approved colorants 

Suspending agents keep ingredients evenly distributed.

  • stearalkonium hectorite
  • bentonite

UV stabilizer to prevent colors from fading.

  • benzophenone-1

Are these ingredients absorbed by the body?

Our fingernails and toenails are made from keratin. Keratin is hard and largely impenetrable. Once the nail polishes are dried, they can no longer be absorbed by the body or released into the air (1). 

However, the ingredients can irritate the skin around your nail beds if you have specific allergies or sensitivities.

Can I have an adverse reaction to nail polish? 

Although rare, some individuals are allergic to the common nail polish ingredient formaldehyde, which works as a resin. Formaldehyde-containing ingredients can include toluene sulfonamide/formaldehyde resin, formalin, methylene glycol, tolunesulfonamide/formaldehyde resin, etc. (1,2).

If you are allergic to formaldehyde, you should use nail polish products free from formaldehyde-containing ingredients. 
There are nail polishes on the market that do not include the allergen. 

Are nail polishes safe to use? 

Nail polishes are safe to use as the ingredients are in small amounts that our bodies do not absorb the ingredients in significant quantities (1). 

There were some concerns over the ingredients dibutyl phthalate and toluene, however, many manufacturers have chosen to replace these ingredients even though there's no harm found at the levels present in nail polishes (1,2,3,4). 
Nail polish ingredients have undergone review by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, which uses peer-reviewed scientific literature to determine safety. You can look up specific ingredients at
There are some safety concerns for nail technicians working in nail salons who are exposed to dust, vapors, and other nail product ingredients at significant levels over extended periods. These safety concerns do not extend to people using nail polish in a typical manner (1).

Should I use nail polish marketed as “free-from” or “non-toxic” that omit specific ingredients? 

If you have an allergy to a specific ingredient, yes, you should use products that do not contain those allergens. 
However, manufacturers market some nail polishes as non-toxic, and it’s important to note that it is a marketing label that does not determine the safety. It’s illegal to sell toxic cosmetic products in the U.S. 

The good news.

Nail polishes are popular products that are safe for people to use and enjoy. We’ve also seen new products pop up on the market, making it possible for people with specific allergies to partake in this widespread beauty practice

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