When nail polish was first created in France in the 1920s, the glossy colors were formulated from an adapted version of the enamel used to paint cars (gross, right?). Thankfully, we’ve cleaned up our manicure (and pedicure) act a little since the early 20th-century, including the adoption by many top nail polish brands of a five-free formula.
What does “five-free” mean?
“Five-free” is a term that the healthy beauty community has coined to mean that a nail polish formulation doesn’t contain five of the more toxic ingredients that some traditional colors use. Until more recently, concerns about the chemicals leaking into our bodies through our nails was minimal—after all, it was said, our nails aren’t living tissue, so we were protected.
The truth is that our nails are incredibly porous, especially when they’re wet, which can lead to polish ingredients sinking into our bodies via our finger and toenails. The skin and cuticles around our nails (you know, the parts that accidentally get swiped when you’re painting your dominant hand with your shakier, non-dominant hand) is also really sensitive and absorbent, and can let those toxins in.
So what toxins are we talking about and why are they so bad? Let’s break it down:
- CAMPHOR: In rare cases, camphor can cause liver damage when applied to skin. And nail biters be warned— it’s been linked to seizures when ingested.
- DIBUTYL PHTHALATE: An endocrine disruptor, dibutyl phthalate is toxic to the reproductive system, and can effect a baby boy’s genitalia development. Plus, it’s been linked to obesity.
- FORMALDEHYDE: A known carcinogen that can also cause organ and immune system toxicity, formaldehyde is an ingredient to avoid at all costs.
- FORMALDEHYDE RESIN: This formaldehyde derivative may not be as toxic, but it’s a known allergen, and can cause skin irritations, as well as eye and lung irritation (and we know we all inhale some nail-polish fumes when we’re swiping on color).
- TOLUENE: Toluene not only impairs breathing and can cause nausea, but it’s also toxic to the nervous system, can cause developmental damage to a fetus and is linked to malignant lymphoma.
What should you choose instead?
Even a few of the most popular, mainstream brands have quietly gone five-free, but some of my favorites have been five-free from the onset. Plus, it’s great to support smaller, cleaner brands who have a mission that extends beyond capitalizing on what’s trending. These six lines combine beautiful branding and bold colors with five-free formulas.
- Treat Collection: This Berlin-based line defines luxurious glamour, with 54 shades that reflect a slightly urban-chic feel (even the branding, with its sleek gold handle and clean logo, screams cool girl). Pictured: Fashion Week
- Scotch Naturals: If you’re looking for squeaky-clean nail polish, this is your best bet. The water-based formula is free of all five of the toxins mentioned above—and many more, making it great for use during pregnancy or for kids. The high water content in the formula makes it really easy to remove, which also eliminates the need for a toxic nail-polish remover, but doesn’t lend itself to manicure longevity. Pictured: Morning Glory Fizz
- Trust Fund Beauty: This vegan line is an indie, edgy brand with bright, trendy colors and a nod to the lifestyles of the rich and famous (their white nail color is called “Blow”). Pictured: Man Crush Monday
- RGB Cosmetics: Vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free, fair trade AND totally cool = RGB. The line of essentials (from a wide variety of base coats, nail care and top coats to 60 pigmented colors) is modern and on-trend, plus it has the best selection of nudes and neutrals. Pictured: Colbalt
- AILA Cosmetics: A cheeky, fun brand that doesn’t take life too seriously but does demand that women get healthy products that work. Each color’s name has a story that entices you to click “add to cart”—and the line has a Better Than Gel top coat that makes your mani last at least a week. Pictured: Wheatgrass
- ZOYA: This is the line for the color-obsessed. ZOYA has just about any color in any finish you can dream up, including opaque sparkles or matte top coats. Pictured: Bevin
What five-free nail polishes top your list?