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What’s In My Nail Polish? | Chemicals to Avoid

What’s In My Nail Polish? | Chemicals to Avoid

What’s In My Nail Polish? | Chemicals to Avoid

I‘ve been painting my nails since the age of six (that’s when my Mum could trust me not to spill it everywhere…and I still did.) I’m sure this is the case for most people. It’s a fun activity to sit down and paint your nails with friends, or freshen up your look for the week ahead. Even with so many people painting their nails on a daily basis so many of us remain oblivious to the toxins and chemicals that are hidden within our nail polish.

Common Chemicals Found in Nail Polish

Chemicals to avoid in your nail polish

To be honest, I’m a pretty lazy person when it comes to maintaining my image – including getting regular hair cuts, dying my hair, plucking my eyebrows and painting my nails. Luckily I was still able to find someone that loves me for who I am and not for my perfect hair.

Nail polish is something that I enjoyed to use when I was younger. Around the age of 12-15 I would paint my nails on a regular basis. It was time consuming and annoying because I would manage to chip off the nail polish within 24 hours of applying it. Since then it’s been a more sporadic occurrence. Applying only if I’m very bored. In 2016 I think I applied nail polish a total of two times. It wasn’t because I was concerned about the chemicals within it at the time… but as time moved on I became more aware of the toxins within traditional nail polishes and became more turned away from them.

Triphenyl Phosphate

I found an article from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) which shares some bad news about nail polish. Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP) is used in nail polish to help the flexibility and durability of the polish and is within many brand name polishes like Essie + OPI. The article from EWG states that it can be metabolized by the body and turned into DPHP, which has a higher concentration in women after application of nail polish. (Another article from EWG states their findings about nail polish here.)

I wanted to verify information on TPHP and searched through Toxnet as well as Pubchem to see if there was any further information regarding toxicity. Although I could not find another article to verify that upon application the concentration of DPHP was higher after nail polish application, I did find that after continual exposure to TPHP there was red blood cell loss among laboratory tested animals and humans.

If you are applying nail polish regularly there is potential for this to be more potentially harmful than if you only apply nail polish a couple times a year. It is important to know that TPHP is a class of Organophosphate Flame Retardants (OFR’s) and can be found in normal household items such as couch cushions and anything treated for flame retardants, these are important to have in case of a fire. Even if you do not use nail polish regularly, you are most likely being exposed to OFR’s on a daily basis.


Have you ever opened up a bottle of nail polish and thought “Wow, this is going to give me a headache!” Well, you might have been inhaling the lovely odour of Styrene. Styrene has a a very strong scent and is used as a binding agent in nail polish. In 1994 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirmed that Styrene is classed in Group 2B (Possibly carcinogenic to humans.) Then in 2004 it was stated to be a carcinogen and in 2014 declassified as a human carcinogen. Therefore it seems to be a widely debated chemical.

Styrene has shown to cause nausea, headaches, eye irritation, skin irritation and negative effects on the central nervous system after long-term exposure. Interestingly, although it has not been officially classified as an endocrine disrupting (hormone disrupting) chemical, studies have shown that continual exposure can lead to more miscarriages and less pregnancies for women. Styrene is one of the chemicals found in Sally Hansen’s Diamond Strength No Chip Nail Colour along with TPHP. (As of researching on Jan 11, 2017.)


Is another stinky ingredient found within common nail lacquers that is formed naturally from volcanic smoke and crude oil. This chemical can be used by people to get high as it can provide a temporarily euphoric feeling. Toluene is also produced from the burning of cigarettes. In 2015, Toluene was officially removed as a contender to be a possible carcinogen due to lack of evidence. However, Toluene could be contaminated with Benzene which is a known human carcinogen.

Toluene can be absorbed into the body through inhalation, ingestion and contact with skin and is linked to eye irritation, dizziness and headaches as well. There evidence to show that Toluene could also cause some effects with developmental health. Women who were pregnant and exposed to Toluene did experience issues with their births – such as growth problems and even miscarriages. Women who are not pregnant and are exposed to Toluene can be affected with menstrual disruptions such as abnormal bleeding. Although small amounts are unlikely to affect you, if contact with Toluene is a regular occurrence it could lead to central nervous system damage. Toluene can be found in the OPI Base Coat, Top Coat and Nail Strengthener. 

What's in my nail polish?

Honorable Mentions:


Yes, unfortunately there are some nail polish companies that still have Formaldehyde within their nail polish formulas. Luckily now that people are concerned about the ingredients in their cosmetics the amount of popular nail care brands that do have formaldehyde has decreased dramatically. Formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and contact should be avoided at all costs.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

Dibutyl Phthalate is used in nail lacquer to help prevent it to become brittle or crack. It is commonly hidden under the guise of “fragrance” which companies are allowed to keep private from consumers as they are “trade secrets.” The EU has classified DBP as a known endocrine disruptor and has banned the use of it in Cosmetics. However, it is not restricted in Canada and the US. [To learn more: DBP from David Suzuki.Org]

Yes, I know you’re probably thinking well if I paint my nails once a week it can’t be doing anything to harm me. “You’re overreacting!”

And yes, you’re probably right. These chemicals are all dangerous at high concentrations. Painting your nails once a week or even once a month is probably not likely to harm you. This post is not an attempt to tell you to ditch your favourite nail polish, it is intended to educate you. In the end, whether you choose to ditch traditional nail polish companies such as OPI, Essie and Sally Hansen is entirely up to you!

Swap it out!

If you are concerned about these chemicals and would like to swap out the nasty toxins, you’re in luck because I’ve found some really good choices that don’t have any of the ingredients listed above. As well, if you are concerned about the nail polish you currently own… Nars and Essie are free from 3 of the most toxic chemicals. 


Piggy Paint is kid-friendly and available from for $11.99 CAD or direct from their website for $7.99 USD. Piggy Paint has also launched a brand called SOPHi which is targeted more toward adults (and doesn’t have a pig on the bottle!)

Benecos Natural Nail Polish is available from True Natural for $16.00 CAD.

Do you regularly paint your nails?



Skin Deep



*This post may contain affiliate links. However all thoughts and opinions are 100% my own!

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  • If I had to completely give up nail polish, man that would be hard! I love painting my nails, and I mean I LOOOVE painting my nails. It relaxes me and there’s just something about a new manicure that makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. That being said, I do reach for nail polishes that are at least 3-FREE, if not more. I haven’t bought any in quite a while, being on a no-buy and such, but once I do I’ll definitely go for at least 5-FREE, and even 7-FREE with Pacifica – I’ve only tried one of theirs so far and absolutely LOVED it! Benecos is on my list too, but ugh, the price.

    • Having manicured nails is definitely a nice thing! I wish I was like you and loved to paint them haha. I’ve heard plenty of great things about the pacifica nail polish! And yes, $16 does seem ridiculous for a bottle nail polish! But I guess it comes down to how you feel about toxins and whatnot. Sophi is a more budget friendly option 🙂

  • I’ve been trying to use nail polishes that are 4-FREE at the very least but then recently I saw that there are 8-FREE polishes out there and realized I could be doing better. Thanks for listing out these harmful ingredients to avoid! I didn’t paint my nails very much last year either. It is a very time consuming and annoying process ;p

    • Thanks for reading Rowena, glad to hear that you’re already using nail polishes which are a little better 🙂 And I agree painting your nails is so time consuming – especially when it gets chipped so quickly!

  • To be honest, the chemicals in nail polish has been something I’ve not really paid attention to (at all). I don’t always have my nails painted, but do love adding some color now and then. I’ll definitely keep the brands you mention in mind though for the next time I purchase some! Thanks for such an informative post.

    Kathryn •

    • Thanks for reading Kathryn! Up until recently I didn’t pay much attention either – hope that this post was helpful 🙂

  • It’s scary to think of what’s in nail polish and I’m guilty for using it anyway! I love the sound of Piggy Paint though!

    Danielle’s Beauty Blog

    • Yes! After reading about all the toxins I was shocked! Piggy Paint has some great reviews. Thanks for reading Danielle 🙂

  • This is a great post. I am glad you included formaldehyde. Too many people don’t know the perils of this ingredient.

  • I have a huge love hate relationship with painting my nails. I always mess them up and it’s just such a stressful activity to me. So no, haha, I do not paint my nails often. I can’t remember the last time I did, actually. Anyways, this was such an interesting and informative read! Thank you for sharing it for sure. Maybe it’s not so bad after all that I don’t paint my nails often 🙂

    -Leta | The Nerdy Me

    • Haha, I have the exact same feelings Leta! Yeah, now you don’t have to feel bad about having naked nails 😉

  • Kay (shoesandglitter)

    This is such an incredibly helpful post, hun! 🙂 I only paint my nails when I am about film YouTube videos… I do like painted nails, but I’m just so freakin’ lazy! Plus, I find that no matter what, nail polish just doesn’t last on my nails, which is frustrating! xoxo <3


    • RIGHT? It’s so time consuming to take the time and paint your nails every week haha. Thanks for reading, Kay!

  • There are plenty nail polish that are 5, 7 or 8 free these days and I do try to use them. I paint my toes all the time but frankly never gave much thoughts on the ingredients.

    Shireen | Reflection of Sanity

    • Until recently I didn’t either Shireen! Once you start looking though it’s pretty surprising what you find. I was super shocked by the formaldehyde.

  • Some ingredients can be metabolised by my body?! That’s a little scary. I love your informative posts and learn something new literally ever time I’m on your blog! I’m definitely up for giving Piggy Paint a try!

    xx, Pia

  • This is such a brilliant post and very informative! I will need to save and share this article as I’ve been looking into alternative ways to use polish and recently come across more natural brands such as Little Ondie (one to definitely try) the smell of chemical polishes is super strong and very off putting so I go for natural alternatives now or Deborah Lippmann (another favourite of mine) it’s not as potent in smell xx

    Jenny | Krystel Couture

  • Thank God I havent worn nail polish since at least last january. These chemicals are really scary. I mean like honestly, loss of red blood cells? endocrine disruptor? Its a wonder all of us aren’t dead yet, with the amount of junk we consume. I like the sound of this piggy paint–simply for its description 😉

    • Hahah – yes it really is a wonder. It’s so crazy how many chemicals are on the market that haven’t been properly tested. Piggy Paint has the cutest packaging!

  • I do paint my nails, maybe once a week or less. And I use Essie. One thing I want to add to your amazing roundup: If you apply nailpolish to your nails, the rate of anything being absorbed into your body is way less than it is in any experimental studies. Nails are meant to protect, so absorption rate is way lower than it is in lab rats for example. That does of course not explain the higher dose of DPHP in women wearing nail polish, but should put things in perspective. If you have injuries around your nail like ripped cuticles or the likes or if you tend to bite your nails though I would be much more worried.
    Oh, and I have a small bottle of Vitamin E oil that I hand my daughtet when I do my nails. That way she can paint her nails as well without any chemicals (or color) going onto her body.

    Linda, Libra, Loca: Beauty, Baby and Backpacking

    • Yes, of course! The percentage of toxins getting into your body from your nail polish is probably quite limited. Especially with so many other toxins in our environment, like OFR’s which is all over our couch cushions. That’s a great idea for your daughter! Plus it will help moisturize her cuticles 🙂

  • Laura

    I have given up reading ingredients on product, If there is no parabens and fragrance I’m happy. I don’t think I’ll be changing all my nail polishes, because I don’t paint my nails that often x

    Pink Frenzy

    • No worries! This is by no means meant to convert you – just to educate in case you are interested. Thanks for reading Laura!

  • Ah, I paint my nails so often! I never really thought to learn about nail polish, thanks for sharing 🙂

  • SamanthaSeries

    I used to paint my nails a lot but lately I am embracing a bare nail. I use a buffer to make them shiny and I’m happy with that :). I knew about a couple of these ingredients, but really not much so this was an interesting read. One of my favourite nail polishes is by the brand Trust Fund, they are “five-free” and have such nice colours!

    Samantha Series

  • Aisha

    Thank you so much for this post. Is really really useful <3 I try to use natural products for hair, skin and body but sometimes we don't pay attention to nail polishes! xx

  • Yup this freaked out me LOL. I knew nail polish was toxic but I was really not that aware how toxic. I will really need to find more brands that are a little more friendly…thanks for sharing Lindsay!

    Stacey +

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