What Is “Clean” Nail Polish? We Have The Answer & The Best Labels To Shop

Photo: Vanni Bassetti/Getty Images.
Even if you've never paused to read the ingredients label on a nail polish before tossing it in your shopping cart (you're always in such a rush at Target, and plus, is text that small even readable?), chances are you've skimmed a scary headline exposing the potentially harmful toxins hiding inside the fun-sized glass bottles.
As a result of the fear factor that's been circulating since at least 2010, when The New York Times ran a piece about growing concern over health risks in the nail-polish industry, many nail-care brands have successfully eliminated the three most potentially harmful, red-flag chemicals from their formulas: formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP, for short), and toluene. These additives have long been used in traditional polishes to help the color better adhere to the nail, but there's now significant research indicating their status as serious health risks.
Unfortunately, there are more than three hard-to-pronounce ingredients on most nail-polish labels, and no governmental regulation on which, and how many, chemical omissions warrant a "non-toxic" label. The overall confusion has resulted in a widespread greenwashing epidemic, and lots of buzzy marketing claims that many people don't fully understand, with nail-polish brands using seemingly arbitrary hyphenates like, "five-free," "eight-free," and "ten-free."
"Unfortunately, since we exist in a basically unregulated market when it comes to beauty products, there is no universal definition of 'non-toxic' nail polish," explains nail pro and Tenoverten founder Nadine Abramcyk. "Brands decide where they draw the line in determining whether they can call themselves non-toxic," she says. "We at Tenoverten remove eight potentially harmful chemicals from the typical nail polish formula and consider the removal of these ingredients to deem us non-toxic."
As the customer, it's completely up to as to which level of the non-toxic polish scale you're comfortable with — five, three, eight, ten, whatever — so long as your favorite is free of formaldehyde, DBP, and toluene. To make the process of finding a clean option a little less confusing, we've broken down our 11 favorite nail-care brands, all of which have made a clear commitment to formulating polishes free of the big three chemicals and then some — despite the lack of an FDA mandate to do so.
From royal blues to cherry reds and confetti glitter, scroll through to find the prettiest (and safest) nail-polish shades we're looking forward to wearing all winter — including the one that just scored a top honor in our 2019 Beauty Innovator Awards.
At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission. Check out the rest of the 2019 Beauty Innovator Award winners.