What’s in your nail polish?

Toxic nail polish ingredients

A list of 9 toxic nail polish ingredients that could be lurking in your nail polish

Understanding ‘3-free, 5-free…9-free’ nail polish

So a lot of us love painting our nails but do we know what’s actually in our nail polish? I set out to find out what exactly it means to be ‘3-free, 5-free…7-free’ and the so-called 9-FREE, to not only to better understand what ingredients are in the nail polish I use but to also share that information with anyone who may be curious as well. Keep reading to learn more about these toxic ingredients and their effects on your health.

Some nail polish brands state that they are ‘9-FREE’ in an effort to seem as natural as possible by claiming their formula is absent of a toxic ingredient that already has been phased out from all nail polish formulas years and years ago (ex. xylene, lead). (Source: Refinery29)

*Always read the label to ensure what ingredients are in your polish.

The 9 Toxic Nail Polish Ingredients:

  1. Formaldahyde/Formaldahyde Resin
  2. DBP (Dibutyl Phthalate & Phthalates)
  3. Toluene
  4. Camphor
  5. TPHP (Triphenyl Phosphate)
  6. Parabens
  7. Xylene & Ethyl tosylamide
  8. Lead

The Toxic Trio: Formaldehyde/Formaldehyde Resin, DBP, Toluene


Formaldahyde/Formaldehyde Resin:

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas at room temperature and has a strong odor. In nail polish, it is typically used to harden the nail polish when dry, while also keeping it flexible to prevent cracking. 

Why it’s toxic: Carcinogen (cancer-inducing), can cause reproductive complications

Its non-toxic substitute: Phenoxyethanol

Also used/found in:

  • Corpse preservation/embalming
  • Wood products (i.e., hardwood plywood)
  • Some building insulation
  • Glues, permanent press fabrics, paints and coatings, some paper products
  • Fertilizers and pesticides
  • Cigarette smoke byproduct

DBP (Dibutyl Phthalate & Phthalates)

It is soluble in various organic solvents, such as alcohol, ether and benzene. Used in nail polish as a plasticier to prevent cracking and brittleness.

Why it’s toxic: Associated with organic and reproductive failure if exposed over a long period of time.

Also used/found in:

  • Adhesives
  • Ink used in printers


 Toluene is a colorless, sweet smelling, and volatile liquid at room temperature. Used in nail polish to give a smooth and even application. (Banned in EU)

Why it’s toxic: Skin irritant, high concentrations leads to dizziness and headache

Also used/found in:

  • Gasoline
  • Spray paint
  • Paint thinner
  • Shoe polish
  • Rubber cement


 A waxy, flammable, white or transparent solid with a strong aroma. Derived from the bark of the Camphor tree found in Asia. Used in nail polish to give it gloss and shine. (Source: Ella + Mia)

Why it’s toxic: Seizure-inducing

Also used/found in:

  • Vick’s Vaporub, Camphor-phenol oral rinse, Supergesic, Sloan’s balm, Peking balm, etc.
  • Used to suppress cough or to induce phlegm expelling
  • Used as a topical treatment to reduce localized pain and swelling

Camphor has been found to be used topically but is very toxic if ingested.

TPHP (Triphenyl Phosphate)

 A colourless solid. Used to increase flexibility in hardened nail polish.

Why it’s toxic: May effect hormone levels leading to weight gain

Also used/found in:

  • Fire retardant
  • Hydraulic fluids


Used as a preservative in many cosmetic brands. The most commonly used parabens are  methylparaben, butylparaben, and propylparaben. Canada doesn’t have any restriction on the use of parabens. Used in nail polish to preserve and prolong nail polish quality. 

Why it’s toxic: Found to be cancer-causing and mimic estrogen hormone which may cause hormone level problems.

Xylene & Ethyl tosylamide (both are derived from Toluene)

 Xylene is a product of Tolune and Benzene and is usually used as a solvent in nail polish production. Ethyl tosylamide is a plasticizer used in nail polish to harden the polish when dry and increases its durability. Banned in EU, due to its antibiotic properties that have been found to lead to antibiotic resistance.

Why it’s toxic: Depression of the central nervous system: diziness, headache. Can cause irritation to throad if inhaled. 

Also used/found in:

  • Gasoline
  • Jet fuel


Lead is a relatively unreactive transition metal. Lead is not common or used much in nail polish formulas but still exists. Labelling lead as an ingredient on cosmetics is banned in Canada, however there still may be trace amounts in the product.

Why It’s toxic: A neurotoxin associated with learning and behavioral problems, reduced fertility and hormone disruption.

Also used/found in:

  • Some older homes may have lead-paint use
  • Airplane fuel

It seems almost all, if not all, nail polish brands are at least absent of the ‘Toxic Trio’ however there are still many brands that contain the other 3-5 toxic nail polish ingredients.

  • Some Mainstream Nail Polish Brands that are 5-FREE (No DBP (Dibutyl Phthalate), Toluene, Formaldehyde, Formaldehyde Resin, and Camphor):

In addition to the list provided above, indie nail polish brands are almost always at least 5-FREE and above.

Here is a list of healthier nail polish ingredients used as a substitutes: Silky Polish

As more and more people are becoming more aware of toxic ingredients in general, companies are more and more pressured to rid their products of toxic compounds. Nail polish brands are shedding more of these toxic compounds and opting for more of a toxin free approach. There isn’t really any 100% certain and definitive reserch results to say nail polish is harmful in general and no one should use it or that these nail polish ingredients will do a lot of harm in the future but if you can choose a polish that does have less ‘toxic’ ingredients, it may be the safer options.

Always remember to check your nail polish bottle labels. Even through an ingredient may not be listed on the label, it does not always it does not exist in small amounts within the product, use your own discretion. A nail polish claiming to be ‘9-FREE’ and natural or organic sounds great, nail polish still contains ingredients that aren’t. Never ingest and keep away from small children!

More sources:










  1. Really never realised that it is so toxic though I am not a nail paint person and think with my kids and cooking wearing a nail paint is an event.

  2. / 9:00 am

    😳😳😳 why have I never thought about this before. I have been enlightened. Great post 👏🏾

  3. / 9:05 am

    Good to know, I heard of the formaldehyde ingredient but did not know of the others.

    • / 11:07 am

      Yup, there’s quite a few toxic ones lurking in some nail polish.

  4. / 12:21 pm

    This was very informative. I’ve heard of the 3-free and 5-free terms before but never knew what the heck they were talking about until now, thanks!

  5. / 1:20 pm

    I love this post. Very informative. I do my own 5-free nail polish. People are not aware of this which is a shame. It’s important to find out the harm certain cosmetics products can have to your health. Keep up the good work. Love your blog!

    Nancy Mobhe (@Nancysbeautybox) http://www.nancysbeautybox.com

  6. / 1:25 pm

    Omg! I didn’t know about this; never for once thought about this. Thank you; this is brilliant, and worth sharing xx

  7. Talisa
    / 6:39 pm

    I’m actually aiming to add more non-toxic polishes to my collection. I’ve found that most of them tend to be more expensive though! 😟

    • / 11:03 am

      Yup sometimes they can be, but Sally Hansen for example is 3-free and their prices are usually lower priced and very affordable

  8. / 8:54 pm

    Wow, I never knew there are so many toxic chemicals in nail polish. I better remove my toe polish every now and then, and find organic an organic one!

  9. / 3:46 am

    This is something I recently started to look into. I have never been one to paint my nails but I have 3 daughters and they started asking to paint theirs. We have the MTHFR mutation so we are very careful with toxins. I have been researching different non-toxic brands. Its amazing how many things out there are toxic and we don’t think about it.

  10. / 7:05 am

    My gosh! I never realised how much toxic stuff went into nail polish! especially since I have a habit of chewing the polish off!

    Sophia xx http://sophiawhitham.co.uk

  11. / 5:31 am

    The amazing thing is we have more options to choose from when it comes to nail polish formula. Nail polish Brands are choosing cruelty-free ingredients. Now we have Halal nail polish for Muslim Women. They listen to what the consumer wants.

    • / 11:59 am

      O no way, that’s amazing! Nail Polish Brands have really stepped up their game.

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