Back in 3000 B.C., when nail polish was first invented, the Chinese used formulations many of today’s eco-conscious consumers would go nuts for. Main ingredients included egg whites, gelatin, beeswax and vegetable dyes.
The issue of toxicity in nail polish didn’t come into play in 1917, when Cutex produced the first modern, mass-marketed lacquers. Their method, along with the one developed by Revlon in 1932, involved modifying the composition of automobile paint. Needless to say, it didn’t exactly promote nail—or overall—health. Nails, like skin, are porous, so any ingredients in your nail polish will eventually find their way into your system.
Thankfully, over time, polish formulas have grown safer. Nowadays, apart from completely non-toxic brands, the safest way to go is 5-free. The label “5-free” refers to brands whose formulas omit the five most toxic ingredients commonly used in nail lacquer: formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, formaldehyde resin and camphor. Formaldehyde resin has been linked to dermatitis; camphor can cause irritation, nausea, dizziness and headaches when inhaled over long periods; DBP is a suspected endocrine disruptor. Toluene, when inhaled in low to moderate levels, can cause fatigue, disorientation, weakness, memory loss, nausea and even hearing and color vision loss. Formaldehyde, which you probably associate with embalming fluid, can be toxic, allergenic, and carcinogenic.
None of these are things we want anywhere near our hands, mouths or even person. These days, most polish brands exclude formaldehyde, DBP and toluene by default. Luckily, all of our favorite brands have nixed the resin and camphor as well.