All it takes is a person with the slightest sense of smell (and a little common sense) to know that nail polish is jam-packed with chemicals. Of course, not all chemicals are created equally. Some are relatively safe; others, not so much. Non-toxic nail polish is decidedly free of the most harmful additives that can be found in traditional nail polishes, but they don’t sacrifice things like color, shine, or longevity. Before we get to the best non-toxic nail polish, though, let’s define what that term actually means.
There are no FDA regulations on “toxic” or “non-toxic” cosmetics labeling, so brands have taken it upon themselves to rid their products of certain biologically and/or environmentally harmful ingredients — and to label them accordingly. In the nail polish world, the non-toxic movement began in earnest in the early 2000s, when major nail polish brands eliminated three toxins from their formulas: formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBT). Polishes free of these toxic additives — which, by now, is virtually every nail polish available to consumers — are marketed as “three-free.” But as research and formula development has evolved, so too has that list of no-go chemicals. Now, you’ll find nail polishes labelled all the way up to 16-free.
To learn more, I spoke with Mary Lennon, co-founder of non-toxic nail polish brand côte, who broke down the nine major toxins and allergens found in most traditional nail polishes. They’re all missing from côte polishes, and many of these additives (or some, in certain cases) are excluded from the non-toxic nail polishes listed ahead.
Formaldehyde: Traditionally, formaldehyde was used as a nail strengthener and hardener. The National Toxicology Program classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.
Toluene: Used in some polishes as a solvent, toluene can have harmful effects on the nervous, reproductive, and immune systems, as well as the kidneys and liver.
Dibutyl phthalate (DBT): Phthalates, like DBP, were used as plasticizers and solvents in some polishes. According to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, phthalates are endocrine disruptors and may be “linked to breast cancer, developmental issues, decreased fertility, obesity and asthma.”
Camphor: In large doses, camphor can cause allergic reactions, irritation, dizziness, nausea, and headaches. It shows up in some nail polish formulas to give it a glossy finish.
Triphenyl phosphate (TPHP or TPP): Another plasticizer, TPHP can affect the reproductive and endocrine systems and disrupt neurodevelopment. It’s also a suspected environmental toxin.
Xylene: Xylene has been added to nail polishes to improve the formula's consistency. It’s a known allergen and skin irritant.
Ethyl tosylamide/epoxy resin: The European Commission banned cosmetics companies from using ethyl tosylamide, a type of sulfonamide, in personal care products. Sulfonamides can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and skin irritation.
Parabens: Used as preservatives, parabens have been linked to breast cancer and other endocrine issues.
Lennon also adds gluten to her brand’s no-go list, as it can pose serious health issues for people who are gluten intolerant.
It’s important to note that non-toxic nail polishes are not free of any and all chemicals. As a consumer, it’s up to you to decide which chemicals you’re okay with, and which you’re not. But with that in mind, all of the best non-toxic nail polishes, ahead, are free of at least seven of the most harmful toxins out there. They also happen to be some of the best nail polishes out there, period.
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1. The Best Drugstore Polish
This Sally Hansen vegan nail polish is the only nail polish on Amazon (and maybe in the world) that’s free of 16 toxins. 16! After the Big 10, the formula for these plant-based polishes is free of animal-derived ingredients, styrene, bisphenol, glycol ether, nonylphenol ethoxylate, and sulfates. But the formula doesn’t skimp on longevity — one customer said their pedicure lasted three weeks with this polish. Take your pick among 30 nature-inspired shades, all of which ring up at just under $7 on Amazon.
2. The Best Prestige Polish
At $20 per bottle, Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab Pro polishes are among the most luxurious polishes you can use on your nails. Aside from their gorgeous, long-lasting shades, there are some good justifications for that price point. Like: They’re free of seven major toxins, but they do contain 10 ingredients that work to actively strengthen your nails. “We’ve infused beauty treatment ingredients into our products from the beginning — including biotin, green tea, and aucoumea. So my polish is not just a polish, it’s a treatment,” Lippmann tells Elite Daily. The gel-inspired formula stays cushiony and chip-free for up to a week, too.
3. The Best Bundle
ZOYA was the first nail polish brand to roll out a three-free formula decades ago, but they’ve since added seven more ingredients to their no-go list. The ZOYA Nail Polish Quads contain four full-sized bottles of these classic salon polishes in a range of shades and finishes — including the All Snuggled Up collection pictured here, with its mix of matte and shimmery pinky-nude tones.
4. The Best Metallics
Not sure if the name is intentional, but Smith & Cult nail polishes are genuinely culty. The brand is known for their mix of eccentric but sophisticated shades and eight-free formulas — all of which I love, but I’m partial to their metallic range: moody, complex, and pigmented as foil. And with their elegant shapes and hammered-gold handles, these bottles are gorgeous enough to display alongside any actual art in your house.
5. The Best Glitter
This bottle of seven-free ella+mila nail polish makes me happy just looking at it — it’s like a teeny-tiny glitter bomb went off in there. Glitter polishes are notoriously thin on the glitter, but reviewers (and their photographic evidence) confirm that this one reaches opaque levels of sparkle-saturation. This is actually a clear polish infused with rose-gold sparkles, so you can wear it on its own or layer it over another color. Top it off with ella+mila’s 7-free top coat to protect the glitter from chipping off.
6. The Best Color-Changing Nail Polish
Handmade in Brooklyn, NY, Cirque Colors Thermal Temperature Color Changing Mood Polish do the work of the mood rings we wore in middle school: Their shades shift alongside your body temperature. These magical mystery polishes come in four shade combinations: rose-gold and white-gold; oxblood and crimson; purple and light blue; and the jade and turquoise pictured above.
But if shade-shifting polish isn’t your thing, the 23 shades in the brand’s standard creme nail polish line are also a godsend for people who aren’t into the typical shades offered from most mainstream nail polish brands — i.e., those among us who find split-pea green and midnight black much more palatable than ballet pinks. Every bottle of these rich, creamy polishes is vegan, cruelty-free, and free of 10 major toxins.
7. The Best Muted Shades
These sundays Non-Toxic Nail Polishes adhere to the same philosophy as the NYC nail studio at which they’re sold IRL: treating yourself (and your nails) with love and care. Makes sense that some of the best shades in this range are as subdued and calm-inducing as the studio itself — think pastel apricot, creamy nudes, and the powdery mauve pictured here. The line features its fair share of darks and brights if you want to dial up the color concentration, but you won't find anything gaudy here — even the amethyst and jade polishes have a soothing quality to them. All sundays polishes are vegan, cruelty-free, and 10-free, too.
8. The Best Brights
On the other end of the shade spectrum, the LONDONTOWN Lakur Enhanced Colors range is full of vivid, celebratory brights. I love the peacock blue pictured above, but I’m equally excited to try out the line’s bold persimmon, metallic purple, and stark white shades. (That said, there's a little bit of everything in this sizable shade range, including reserved nudes.) Each brilliant bottle is infused with the brand’s exclusive Florium Complex — a blend of nail-strengthening ingredients derived from British botanicals — and they formula is clear of nine common toxins.