We hear a lot about “safe” nail polishes these days, but it can be confusing as to what, exactly, those polishes really are. Is it best to go for 3-free? 5-free? 7-free? And what does it all mean? We spoke with three cosmetic chemists to get the lowdown on the whole thing, and then we found 33 nail polishes (in cute colors!) for you to shop, so you never have to worry about putting pretty polish on your nails again.
For starters, the “free” designations on nail polishes simply means that these formulas are free of certain harmful chemicals. “What 5-free and 7-free means is that they removed the known carcinogens,” cosmetic industry consultant Joseph J. Cincotta, Ph.D., tells us. Specifically, 3-free formulas eliminate formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate; 5-free formulas are also usually missing formaldehyde resin and camphor; 7-free take away ethyl tosylamide and xylene from the mix; 8-free removes triphenyl phosphate; and 9-free also gets rid of parabens.
So—let’s say you’re going with a 9-free polish. “Does this make nail polish safe is still the question,” Cincotta says. “Nail polish contains volatile solvents (ethyl acetate, butyl acetate, acetone) that create its characteristic odor.” He adds that the smelly fumes you find in many nail salons are part of the problem. “Just walk into any nail salon, do you want to inhale those solvents all day? I consider any long term exposure to volatile solvents unhealthy.”
There is good news: “Once the polish dries on your nails, the film left behind (if the chemicals listed above are not present) is pretty much a nonissue,” he said. But if you’re still worried about it, “the perfect solution would be a water-based acrylic nail polish,” he says. (Don’t worry, we included some in our slideshow.) “However, the performance just isn’t as good to date as the solvent-based formulas,” he adds.
Others think the whole thing is much ado about nothing. “Questions about the safety of ingredients used in nail polish come up all the time, but according to the best science to date, consumers don’t seem to have much to really worry about,” cosmetic chemist Randy Schueller, cofounder of The Beauty Brains, tells us.
This all has a lot to do with the level of exposure to which you’re subjected. “Are these ingredients really dangerous?” asks Schueller. “It depends on the level of exposure. If you polish your nails once in a while in a well-ventilated room, you probably won’t have any problem. If you’re a salon worker who is constantly exposed to fumes in an improperly ventilated workplace, then there is cause for concern.”
And the concern is serious: Schueller cited serious health risks associated with long-term exposure to “some of the main ingredients of concern,” which “include formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde resin, and camphor.” These risks “range from cancer to neurological damage to skin irritation,” he said.
Don’t panic, though. According to a study Schueller pointed out that was published last year, “American consumers should not be concerned by new research that is speculative, misleading, and does not use sound science to assess the safety of an ingredient which has a long and well-documented history of safe use.”
Cosmetic chemist Jim Hammer, the founder of Mix Solutions, says though it’s true that the fumes are dangerous, the chemicals themselves are relatively safe. “The number-one safety concern for consumers using conventional, old-school nail polishes is the volatile solvents,” Hammer tells us. “In these formulas, the resins are dissolved in solvents like toluene, butyl acetate and ethyl acetate, which create a lot of fumes during use.” As long as you have “adequate ventilation” while painting your nails, you should be fine.
“All of the other things are really a secondary concern,” Hammer says. “Plasticizers, like the phthalates, tend to get trapped pretty well within the dried resin coating, so there is very little exposure to the consumer from these.” And though formaldehyde sounds scary, it’s negligible, he adds: “Formaldehyde resins are sometimes used, but the formaldehyde is chemically combined within the polymer, so there is little if any free formaldehyde which the consumer will be exposed to. Other questionable ingredients—camphor, etc.—are also pretty well locked inside the resin.”
Ahead, find our favorite 33 nail polishes—and decide for yourself if 3-free, 5-free, 7-free, 8-free, or 9-free is the way to go. If you want to be super safe, try one of the two water-based formulas we found, and just paint your nails a little more often (these tend to chip faster). Happy painting!