Nail Polish & the Toxic Trio

Let’s talk about nail polish; I know many of you love the stuff. For me it is something I dabble in every now and again, usually during the summer months on my toes. The reason why I am not much of a nail polish junkie is I am too lazy to apply it and I have always been aware of the toxic chemicals some polishes contain. I do not think nail polish can ever be truly toxic free due to the nature of the product but you can opt for free from versions. These polishes are often referred to as “3 free” because they do not contain a toxic trio which is toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and formaldehyde.

Here is what the EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetic Database has to say about these three ingredients (link)

TOLUENE: A volatile petrochemical solvent and paint thinner, toluene is a potent neurotoxicant that acts as an irritant, impairs breathing, and causes nausea. Mothers exposure to toluene vapors during pregnancy may cause developmental damage in the fetus. In human epidemiological studies and in animal studies toluene has been also associated with toxicity to the immune system and a possible link to blood cancer such as malignant lymphoma.

DIBUTYL PHTHALATE: The State of California and other authoritative bodies have classified dibutyl phthalate (DBP) as a reproductive and developmental toxicant, and the European Union banned the use of this ingredient in cosmetics and personal care products. In animal studies, exposure to DBP during gestation causes infertility, cryptorchidism and problems in sperm development, adverse effects similar to human testicular dysgenesis syndrome. Prenatal exposure to DBP has been associated with anatomical changes in the reproductive system development in baby boys. In adult men, DBP has been correlated with changes in serum hormone levels, lower sperm concentration and motility, and decreased fertility.

FORMALDEHYDE: Formaldehyde is a carcinogenic impurity released by a number of cosmetic preservatives, including diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, DMDM hydantoin, quaternium-15, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, and sodium hydroxylmethylglycinate. According to reviews by the industry-funded Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel, these cosmetic ingredients can release formaldehyde at levels as high as one-tenth that of the original ingredient (CIR 2006). Successful treatment of formaldehyde-triggered contact allergic dermatitis through substitution of body care products free of these preservatives (Flyvholm 1992) is implicit confirmation of the presence of low levels of formaldehyde in these products.The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (IARC) has classified formaldehyde as 'carcinogenic to humans,' and the U.S. National Toxicology Program has classified it as 'reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,' based on emerging evidence in humans and robust evidence in animals (IARC 2004; NTP 2005). Occupational exposures to formaldehyde gas are linked to nasal and nasopharyngeal cancers (IARC 2004; NTP 2005). Animal studies confirm this link, and also suggest an association between formaldehyde in drinking water and stomach and gastrointestinal cancer and leukemia (NTP 2005). Despite the considerable health concerns associated with this carcinogen, until recently formaldehyde itself was a common ingredient of nail polish. Consumer pressure has now forced many major cosmetics manufacturers to voluntarily remove this ingredient from their nail products. European health protections now limit the concentration of formaldehyde in cosmetics to 0.2%, and require that body care products containing formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing ingredients be labeled with the warning 'contains formaldehyde' if the concentration of formaldehyde in the product exceeds 0.05% (SCCPNP 2002). Even the industry-funded Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel recommends that cosmetic products not contain more than 0.2% formaldehyde, and does not consider formaldehyde to be safe in aerosol products (CIR 2006). However, as it stands in the U.S. there are no restrictions on the levels of formaldehyde allowed in any body care products, no requirement to test products made with formaldehyde-releasing preservatives for levels of formaldehyde, and certainly no obligation to inform consumers that the products they use each day are likely to contain a cancer-causing chemical that does not appear on the list of ingredients.

I am aware of a number of companies that make “3 free” polish and I would like to share them with you. Free from nail polish is an investment which on average cost £10. In comparison with brands like OPI and Leighton Denny the price is equivalent. I do not use nail polishes very often but admit I have a mixture of 3 free and possibly toxic polishes in my collection (I say possibly as I can not see ingredients for the Boots Natural Collection).

If you decide you would like to reduce the chemicals here are some 3 free brands for you to consider – 

Butter London 
Nail Girls 
Filthy Gorgeous 
Scotch Naturals 
Honeybee Gardens 
Priti NYC 
Laqa & Co 

You may also like to consider a healthy remover, here are a few I know of -

Priti NYC Soy Nail Polish Remover 
Eden Natural Nail Polish Remover 
Mezaya Nail Polish Remover 

Majority of the products I have listed are available direct from brand website otherwise check out cutecosmetics or Love Lula. If you have any further recommendations on this topic, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading J


  1. Great post!
    I have been using the Scotch Naturals recently and I'm really impressed with it. Its not very glossy but lasted well and can be removed with surgical spirit :)

    1. Thanks for the feedback on Scotch Naturals, it is one that I had my eye one but had not seem many reviews :)

  2. I'm never without polish but thinking about all the nasties freaks me out.

    I tried a polish remover from Ciate just before Christmas and the smell actually made me sick. I know remover is always strong and I've used some really bad ones before but they were nothing compared to this.

  3. Great post! I agree with you that nail polishes can never be truly natural, not unless we try dying our nails with beetroots! It's great to see less chemically processed lines out there though. I don't really use nail varnish much, but I do have a Priti NYC one for when I go out. Just need to get the remover to match :)

  4. Are you saying then that Leighton Denny and Opi do contain all three?

    1. OPI reformulated in 2006 & removed DBP (dibutyl phthalate) and Toluene some of their line (strengtheners/nail hardener) does contain formaldehyde, this information is provided on their website. According to the Leighton Denny website they are free from Formaldehyde, Toluene and DBP.