The Big 3 Toxins in Your Polish and Nail Care: Why You Should Avoid Them

Categories: Expert Advice Features Nail Care

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why you should buy 3-free nail polish

Following the article about toxins in beauty products and the heated discussion around it, I decided to unfold the subject further and focus specifically on Toxins in nail polish. The fact that nail polish originates from a car paint gives it a toxic and potentially hazardous past. So which not-so-good chemicals still remain in the formulas or have been added as nail polish evolves? The chemicals we’re talking about today are Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Formaldehyde and Toluene. They were nicknamed the ‘toxic trio’ or The Big 3 because of their serious health impacts.

The Big 3 Toxins subject is not particularly new. Most major U.S. brands started excluding these toxins from their formulas in 2006 and in Europe as early as 1976. So you would assume that by now most of the major nail polish brands would exclude these chemicals completely. Well, imagine how not-so-pleasantly surprised I was to discover formaldehyde in one of my favourite nail strengtheners – now, in 2015!

So, why exactly these toxins are so bad, what do they do and most importantly, why should you avoid them in your polish and nail care products? Read on to find out.

1. Formaldehyde

Found in: some nail polish, but mostly in nail hardeners and nail strengtheners. It is used as a nail-hardening agent. A formaldehyde resin when used in nail polish makes it more long-lasting and resilient. The resin is manufactured from formaldehyde but once the product becomes a resin, the formaldehyde changes chemically and is no longer toxic. However, be aware of formaldehyde in your treatment products! Go check your favourite nail strengthener right now.

Why you should avoid it: This chemical was deemed a human carcinogen by The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (IARC) and has been linked to occupational related cancers: nasal and nasopharyngeal. It can cause eye, nose, throat irritation, asthma, potential effects on the reproductive and neurological systems.

2. Toluene

Found in: Acrylic paints, varnishes, lacquers, adhesives, glues, paint thinners and shoe polish. Its primary use is as an additive in gasoline. Toluene (other names – methylbenzene, toluol and phenylmethane) is a commonly used solvent that creates a smooth finish across the nail and keeps the pigment  from separating in the bottle. It also makes the polish easy to apply.

Why you should avoid it: Inhalation of toluene in low to moderate levels can cause tiredness, weakness, uncoordination, memory loss, nausea, loss of appetite, and hearing and color vision loss. Inhaling high levels of toluene in a short time may cause light-headedness, nausea, or sleepiness, unconsciousness and even death. Inhaling this toxic chemical for prolonged periods can affect the central nervous system, cause reproductive harm and asthma.

3. Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

Found in: PVC, adhesives, printing inks, grouting agents used in construction and also consumer products such as cosmetics and nail polish in particular. DBP is a commonly used plasticiser. It’s an oily liquid that is not very volatile so it does not evaporate readily. It is used in nail polish to prevent chipping and cracks.

Why you should avoid it: It is a suspected teratogen and endocrine disruptor. The use of this substance in cosmetics, including nail polishes, is banned in the EU under Directive 76/768/EEC 1976 and in the U.S. all major producers began eliminating this chemical from nail polishes since 2006. DBP was permanently banned in children’s toys.

Final Thoughts

As you see each of these chemicals used in nail polish for a reason. They make it longer lasting, chip-resistant and more durable. However, there are so many 3-free nail polish brands that have been toxin-free for years and have fantastic formulas. For instance, due to strict regulations (the Big 3 chemicals are banned in the EU) all European nail polish brands are guaranteed 3-FREE and many are 5-FREE. Most of the U.S. brands (Essie, OPI, ORLY, etc) are 3-FREE too.

However if you’re in doubt whether the nail polish is 3-FREE or not, just read the ingredient list and look for Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Formaldehyde and Toluene.

Of course, the choice is yours whether you use toxin-free products or not. I’m simply providing information to help you make a more informed choice. I’ve consciously been using and showcasing only 3-FREE and 5-FREE nail polish brands on SoNailicious for a while now.

Now I’ll be even more cautious about what nail care and polish I use. Particularly now when I see my husband going though the challenges of fighting with cancer. We all feel invincible when we are 18, but trust me the situation changes after you hit 30-35. Health effects of toxins in nail polish are not hypothetical. Research studies have documented acute health effects in nail salon workers that were frequently exposed to nail care products with harmful chemicals (read more here).  The earlier you start looking after yourself and exclude unnecessary toxins from your life the better! I encourage your to start today  – with your stash!

What about you? Is it a big consideration for you if a polish is 3-free or not?

– Maria, xx

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  • Very useful and informative post! Wish your husband strength!

    • Thank you Andrea! I thought this post would be useful for all nail polish lovers. The Big-3 chemicals may not be a major concern for someone who paint their nails once a month, but for us, nail polish addicts, I think it’s very important we use safe nail polishes only. We paint our nails and inhale the fumes daily, we have massive nail polish stashes in our rooms and some chemicals are still evaporating even with the lids closed tightly. So it’s better to be safe now, then regret about it later.

  • Eugenia

    Thank you very much Maria! We need more people from beauty reality to speak about these problems and not only “oh, dear, look here, which amazing color I’m going to show you!”.

    • Thank you Eugenia! I guess some bloggers/writers don’t want to ruin their relationships with certain brands by pointing out why certain products or formulas maybe harmful for people. Big magazines don’t care about their readers at all. But here, on SoNailicious, no way I’ll show a product that I have doubts about. I value my readers health. And, I value my reputation, too. Money can’t buy either of these things. You either got it or you don’t… So, 3-free and 5-free all the way! :)

  • Mae

    Hi Maria! Great article, thank you! I have many polishes of unknown “brands” that dont have any information about the chemiicals they have in. They are cheap and look gorgeus, but we dont know their components..what do you suggest forma these cases? Im afraid now… Take care

    • Hi Mae, I’m in the same situation. I still have a lot of nail polish that I bought before I knew anything about the Big 3 toxins and it would be such a waste to throw them all away :( So I put them in a well sealed box and put them away. I have their swatches (on swatch wheels) so if I’d ever need any of these colours I can use it. I guess it’s not a massive danger if you use ‘bad’ polish from time to time or for some nail art details. But I’d definitely recommend NOT to use them everyday. And make sure they are sealed and stored away in container, so you are not inhaling to any fumes. Just next time you’re buying nail polish pay more attention to ingredients, you can always email the seller asking about their certification and full ingredients list. Hope this helps! x

      • Libby

        Thank you for the article, Maria! I hope your husband is getting all of the treatment he needs. I’m a visual artist in the US and I have been using nail polish to make big paintings for a while now. I wish I could paint my nails, but when you’re constantly painting, manicures last about an hour (seriously, it sucks). So I have an odd question for you: Is there a website or group that re-sells or gives away polishes with toxic formulas? I would love to get all the polish that isn’t safe for human wear and make sure they at least get to be on display in a less harmful way. Thank you for reading, and again thank you for the great article. I love your blog.

  • nazi

    Hi, how are you? Do not bother. I am from Iran. I have a question . I am grateful to answer.
    I want to know what type of implant is to nail ….
    What is the name of this type of nail?
    If you like learning about this type of nail suggest me ..
    On YouTube or anywhere else …tuturial.
    The two pictures look..
    What is the name of this type of nail?



    Waiting for your response
    My English is not so good … sorry
    Cordially yours…
    tank you maria :)

    • Hi, thanks for your question! I think this is acrylics but can be gel extensions. We don’t show this kind of tutorials here. But I’m sure if you google ‘acrylic nails extensions tutorial” you’ll find something.

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