A few weeks ago, we discovered a nail polish that claims to be free of a whopping nine potentially harmful chemicals. This was new to us, as we've only seen 3-free, 5-free, and the occasional 7-free polishes on the market. Since the terms aren't regulated by the FDA, we decided to do a little digging to figure out what they mean, once and for all. According to cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson of BeautyStat.com, 3-free nail polish (like those from Orly and Butter LONDON) has come to mean the omission of the "toxic trio": formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate. "These ingredients are used to harden and preserve polish, keep it flexible, and reduce cracking," says Donna Perillo, founder of Sweet Lily Natural Nail Spa & Boutique, who adds that the chemicals have been shown to cause several issues, including cancer and reproductive complications. Next in line is 5-free nail polish (like those from Zoya and Priti NYC), which typically adds formaldehyde resin and camphor to its "free-of" list, along with the typical 3-free ingredients. But the only way to know for sure what is or isn't in your bottle is by reading the label. And then there's the new "9-free" nail polishes (like those from Londontown and JACAVA London), which claim to be free of formaldehyde, camphor, toluene, DBP (dibutyl pthalate and phthalates), formaldehyde resin, xylene, ethyl tosylamide, parabens, and lead. This might sound like the best option for natural nail polish lovers, but some of the experts we spoke to were suspicious of the ingredients these companies claim to exclude.
"Many times, a brand will include ingredients in the 'free-of' claim that are not typically used in nail polishes anymore."
"Many times, a brand will include ingredients in the 'free-of' claim that are not typically used in nail polishes anymore, or at least haven't been used in ages, like xylene," says Ni'Kita Wilson, cosmetic chemist and founder of Skinects. "A lot of these chemicals are dated and aren't truly 'new' news," adds celebrity manicurist Elle. Take lead, for example: "There is no reason to add lead directly into the formulas," says Wilson. However, she goes on to note that iron oxide pigments (which are used to add color to nail polish) do contain trace amounts of lead, but the FDA regulates these pigments and has placed limitations on their use. Additionally, many ingredients in nail polish are only harmful in high concentrations, or if the products aren't used as directed. According to the FDA, nail products cannot contain harmful ingredients that might hurt users when used as labeled. For salon or factory workers who experience long-term exposure to some of these chemicals, there are certainly huge health risks that should not be ignored. But for the average consumer, it's somewhat less of a concern. "It's not like you're changing your nail polish five times a day or something," says Elle. "It's the same fear that people have with gel lights. You're getting more exposure sitting [under a sunny] window than you are putting your fingers under a UV light for 60 seconds." That being said, of course some of these ingredients are harmful. Robinson believes that the toxin-free nail trend is "based on a consumer need for safe products." And we agree — we do need them. But when cosmetics companies use scare tactics to persuade us to buy their product, that's when we have to draw the line. As Wilson so aptly put it: "I don't recommend brands that tout 'free-of' as their primary marketing tool," she says. "Tell me that you have chip-resistant wear for one week, tell me it outshines the market leader, tell me something about the product other than what it doesn't contain! Otherwise, it all becomes a numbers game."