Nail polish is a fun and easy way to change up your look. Especially these days, with so many quality lines on the market, all of which are constantly releasing new shades and textures. (And that’s not to mention the customizable aspects of nail polish—adding glitter, decals, or creating full-on nail art designs.) But the best part is, you’re never more than a swipe of remover away from creating a totally new look!
Historically, nail polishes were pretty noxious. Many contained known carcinogens like formaldehyde and toluene, along with a slew of other harmful chemicals. Nowadays, pretty much all of the worst ingredients in nail polish have been replaced with their less-toxic counterparts, according to Jenny Frankel, the president of Frankly Beauty, Inc. and a former cosmetics formulator. “Just look for ‘5-free’ on the label, which means a polish is free of formaldehyde, formaldehyde resins, toluene, dibutyl phthalates (DBP), and camphor,” says Frankel. (These are the five most common toxins and contaminants found in traditional polishes.) A number of non-toxic and eco-friendly brands on the market are also made without preservatives or acetates, both of which release low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause headaches and respiratory problems.
Frankel helped us break down the makeup of modern nail polishes; here’s the scoop.
In order to create a smooth, durable coat, nail polishes rely on two ingredients: plasticizers and resins (also called polymers). Plasticizers such as dibenzoates give the polish flexibility to help it resist chipping or cracking. And resins like nitrocellulose or styrene acrylic polymers form a hard coat on your nails when the polish dries. Together, they yield long-wearing color that goes smoothly and evenly onto nails.
But not all resins are created equal. “High-adhesion” resins are used in long-wearing polishes like CND Shellac (the original gel polish), while “low-adhesion” resins are used to create products that can be removed easily with acetone-free or ester-based nail polish removers. The latter are more gentle on nails than acetone-based removers.
Shopping tip: Whether a resin is high- or low-adhesion depends on its chemical structure, which wouldn’t be disclosed on the label—products that say “long-lasting” likely have high-adhesion resins; “easy removal” or even “natural” might indicate a low-adhesion resins.
These plasticizers and resins are dissolved in solvents, which hold everything together and give polishes their liquid texture. They’re also the things that cause nail polish to dry on nails as a hard coat. When exposed to air, solvents vaporize (or change from a liquid into a gas), leaving plasticizers and resins behind—as the hard coat. Solvents also help keep colorants and mineral-based pigments evenly dispersed throughout the polish (Colorants, by the way, are synthetic, often petroleum-based color additives regulated by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act). Solvents may also include acetates which, while considered safe for use in cosmetics, do release low levels of VOCs. More eco-friendly brands just use plain ol’ water.
if you want: a quick-drying formula
look for polishes with: higher levels of ethyl acetate, which vaporizes quickly and causes the nail polish to “set” faster
if you want: an opaque finish
look for nail polishes with: iron oxides
if you want: a shimmery, sparkly, or frosted finish
look for nail polishes with: mica
if you want: an eco-friendly polish
look for nail polishes with: acrylic polymers and water—this resin-and-solvent duo releases zero harmful VOCs
In the past, formaldehyde preservatives were added to nail polishes to prevent color from changing over time, but most formulas today no longer include them. Instead, more and more products rely on high-quality pigments that last longer.