Should You Switch to 5-Free Nail Polish?

Shannon Farrell
5-free nail polish

Photo: Getty Images

In recent years, the boom in nail polish sales was a tell-tale sign of the failing economy. (Couldn’t buy new shoes? Nail polish had to do.) Now that the economy has slowly been rising over recent years, polish sales have slowly fallen. However, there’s one category that’s seen an increase in interest. Mintel’s Nail Color and Care US 2015 report found that 67 percent of respondents reported interest in natural brands that offer low-chemical or chemical-free nail polishes. You may know them as 3-free and 5-free polishes.

In the wake of the New York Times’ devastating (and amazing) articles on the chemical dangers faced by manicurists, we had to ask if we should all be making the switch to more natural nail polish formulas. We caught up with some product developers and people in-the-know to find out.

“Correctly speaking, nail polish can never be a truly organic product,” says Daniela Mellis, the founder of 5-free polish brand Treat. “Otherwise it would not last on the nails, but one can substitute the five most common chemicals—formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and camphor—with less harmful, non-toxic alternatives.” To be an official 5-free polish, the formula must be free of the above mentioned chemicals, while 3-free still includes both camphor and formaldehyde resin.

“There are severe health damages these chemicals can cause,” says Kim D’Amato, the founder of PRITI NYC who started the company because she wanted a healthier nail lacquer formula when she became pregnant with her daughter. “I also wanted to provide a polish to everyone to ensure that they had a healthy option as well.”

So why these five chemicals? Formaldehyde, which keeps the nail polish from breaking when it dries, can cause allergic reactions. Formaldehyde resins, which add flexibility and gives the polish staying power, can cause skin inflammation. DBP is another plasticizer that adds elasticity and extends the lifespan of the polish. “We find [DBP] is entirely out of place in cosmetics given that it is classified as toxic,” says Mellis. “It’s even prohibited in the EU.”

Toluene, which is used as a solvent to ensure a smooth and blended formula, is also added to gasoline to produce benzene. The EU has also given this one the boot.

Camphor, the last of the bunch, prevents polish from cracking or chipping right away. In large enough doses, it can potentially cause nausea, respiratory distress and even seizures.

“We do not want to have any of these ingredients on our fingers or toes, because when you think of it, how often do you touch your face, ears, and eyes in the course of just one day?” says Mellis. “No thanks.”

“These ingredients weren’t put in to be harmful, but when consumers learned that some of these ingredients could be irritants, it was time to find better and healthier alternatives,” says Michelle Toma Olson, the founder of ‘Tini Beauty, another 5-free brand.

There are natural, healthier alternatives out there, and brands like Treat, PRITI and ‘Tini Beauty aren’t the only ones using them. Mainstay Deborah Lippmann has offered 5-free polish since she started her company in 1999. At the time, there weren’t any luxury brands that were offering healthy formulas. Now even Chanel and Dior have joined the trend. Some other favorites are Zoya (they’re also vegan!), Cote, and JinSOON by fashion week regular Jin Soon Choi. All offer the same great color and long-lasting durable finishes; just with slightly better-for-you ingredients. Now that’s a beauty trend we can get behind.

Read more from Daily Makeover: Test Your Nail Polish Knowledge

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