Natural is a big buzzword whether it is marketing food or beauty products and nail polish is no exception. But pop your head in a nail salon and the smell can be overwhelming. How can a scent that potent be "natural?"
It can't. "A truly 'natural' nail polish does not exist on the market. The alternative nail polish formulas have been designed to reduce or eliminate the more toxic ingredients," says Jim Hammer, cosmetic chemist at Mix Solutions. Polishes without the toxic trio (Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), Toluene and Formaldehyde), also known as "three-free"; for example, are less toxic.
The toxic trio. What's the big deal?
Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is used to make nail polish more flexible and chip-resistant, but it can cause nausea, irritated eyes and more serious problems when exposed to it long-term. Toluene is an organic compound that helps nail polish go on smoothly - it's also known to cause dizziness, headaches and nausea. Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable chemical used in nail polish as a preservative which can cause allergic reaction and asthma-like attacks.
Even worse, there are some nail polish brands claiming to be less toxic but are far from it. In April 2012, the California Department of Toxic Safety Control tested 25 nail products in the San Francisco Bay Area to see if they lived up to their non-toxic claims. Researchers found that 10 out of 12 products claiming to be toluene-free actually contained toluene. To make sure your brand of nail polish is as non-toxic as it claims, do a little research.
Luckily, OPI, Deborah Lippmann, Wet n Wild, Essie and many other brands have hopped on the three-free train making shopping for less toxic nail colors easier. Still, there are more chemicals in polishes that cause some concern, says Alexandra Scranton, Director of Science and Research for Women's Voices for the Earth. "Butyl acetate, ethyl acetate, isopropyl acetate and methacrylic acid can cause eye, nose and throat irritation and potentially lead to drowsiness, headaches or difficulty breathing with longer exposures," she says.
What does "four-free" polish mean?
There doesn't seem to be a consensus among all nail polish brands that claim to be four-free. For the most part, four-free polishes are free of the toxic trio and camphor, the same ingredient used in Vicks VapoRub as a cough suppressant. In nail polish, camphor is used as a plasticizer making it more resistant to chipping. Other brands consider themselves four-free because they don't contain formaldehyde resin, which forms a shiny, durable film, or for DaniPro, the fourth is no animal testing.
What's the difference between solvent-based and water-based nail polish?
Solvents found in nail polish are the same ones found in household paint and varnish - they help nail polish stick to the nail, avoid chipping and air dry quickly. "The disadvantage to a solvent-based polish is the strong, chemical fumes which must be ventilated while the nails are drying," says Hammer. The benefit of water-based polishes is there is no solvent odor -- the disadvantage is in order to create a durable coating the polish needs to be exposed to UV light.
Bottom line: If you're looking for natural nail polish you're not going to find it. What you'll actually find is non-toxic polish which is preferred over old-school polishes filled with the toxic chemicals. If you're trying to take a more natural approach towards manis and pedis, take a look at the ingredient list and make sure the brands for your top coat, base coat, and any other coat you might apply are leaving the most harmful ingredients out of their products. Also, consider taking a week long break from manicures, to allow your nails to breathe and prevent them from drying, and use an acetone-free nail polish remover.