Have you ever thought about what goes into your manicure looking so glossy? Or what helps it last through the week in the face of some serious knocks and scrapes? (In our case, a lot of rooting around in handbags.) Put simply, it’s down to chemicals that help keep things smooth, long-lasting and easy to apply with a few flicks of a brush.
It wasn’t always this way. Polish has existed in China since circa 3000BC. During the Ming dynasty, nail paint was made with natural ingredients – beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, vegetable dyes and gum arabic.
Modern-day polish is a different beast. There is an increasing amount of information out there about the ingredients in all the products in our make-up bags and nail paints are some of the worst offenders for toxins.
What are the common toxins found in nail polish?
What should you look out for on the chemical front? There’s the “toxic trio” of formaldehyde, used as nail-hardening agent and a known carcinogen, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a plasticiser that stops polish turning brittle that has been linked to reproductive abnormalities, and toluene, which will help give your manicure a smooth finish, but can cause headaches and dizziness. Other chemicals in the mix include triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), a plasticiser and fire retardant that has been show to affect hormones (after prolonged exposure), and formaldehyde resin, a skin allergen. There’s also camphor, which helps keep your nails looking glossy but, when inhaled, can leave you feeling dizzy and nauseous.
Studies have shown that the body can absorb traces of some chemicals through nail polish, but there is no need to panic. “No one is saying that the occasional manicure will cause long-term health consequences,” says Janet Nudelman, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “But certain groups may be at higher risk.” Those groups include nail salon staff, or anyone working with the products on a daily basis, and children who are more susceptible to phthalates.
Governments are taking steps to help detoxify nail products. The European Union has banned DBP in cosmetics, though the US hasn’t yet followed suit. The good news is that there are an increasing number of safer options out there.
How to know if a polish is non-toxic?
Non-toxic polishes will carry a “free” label, with the most common being “3-free”. These do away with the afore mentioned “toxic trio” and you can also buy “5-free”, “7-free”, “9-free” varnishes and some brands have managed to remove up to 12 chemicals. Vegan nail polish is also a growing trend and has been developed without animal-testing or any animal-derived products in the ingredients list.
Sherrille Riley, founder of luxury London boutique Nails & Brows, has been an advocate of non-toxic nail products since she set up shop four years ago. “The skin around our fingers and cuticles is sensitive and absorbent, so non-toxic polishes tend to be kinder to nails, meaning less chance of drying out our nails and skin, which can cause irritation and inflammation,” she says.
Riley says that technology and innovation in the nail industry has greatly improved in recent years, with many non-toxic formulations showing no real difference in finish or wear-time to regular polishes – but you have to prep your hands and nails properly before using them.
We wanted to see if non-toxic polishes really were a match for the big players in the market.
How did you test these polishes?
These nail varnishes were tested on women ranging from 25- to 70-years-old, over the course of a month. All were painted without base and top coats (with a good base coat and top coat, you can easily extend the life of a nail varnish by up to four days, and there are a number of decent non-toxic sets). Each was judged on ease of application, colour, durability and shine.
The results corroborated Riley’s view: non-toxic nail polish is a genuine competitor to regular varnish, with most showing little to no difference in colour, shine or durability compared with chemical-based products.
Smith & Cult, 14ml: £19, Net-a-Porter
Non-toxic count: 8-free: DBP, toluene, TPHP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, xylene and ethyl tosylamide
Our favourite shade: Exit the Void
Created by American beauty veteran Dineh Mohajer – also the brains behind cult Nineties brand Hard Candy – Smith & Cult is a major player in the non-toxic market. There are 35 shades in its 8-free range, which is also vegan and gluten-free. The brush is medium-to-thick and we found polish glided on evenly. One coat would be enough if you’re short on time, but we’d advise a couple of thin coats. Drying time was 10 to 15 minutes for a glossy manicure that lasted a week without chipping. The quality here makes up for the high price tag and the glass packaging with a shiny gold lid means it looks good on a dressing table too. Our pick from the range is Exit the Void, a highly-pigmented, spring-like periwinkle shade.
Kure Bazaar, 10ml: £15, Love Lula
Non-toxic count: 10-free
Our favourite shade: Catwalk
Hailing from France, Kure Bazaar is a fashion editor’s favourite; it was Peter Pilotto’s nail polish of choice at its latest LFW show. There is a 70-strong colour range made from 85 per cent natural ingredients, including wood pulp, wheat, cotton, potatoes and corn, rather than the familiar chemical nasties. For example, cotton replaces the traditional chemical polymers such as resin, creating the hard, shiny surface of polish. The latest colours are vegan, 90 per cent natural and 10-free formulas. Kure also claims to be the first range to remove benzophenone -1 and -3, the toxic chemical used to prevent colour fading. Catwalk is a metallic purple that only needed two thin coats to look immaculate. The brush is quite thin, making it good for edges but it requires more strokes to paint the nail than some. It dries in 15 minutes however, and lasted just over five days before a chip appeared on our tester’s forefinger.
Margaret Dabbs, 9ml: £14, Margaret Dabbs
Non-toxic count: 3-free
Our favourite shade: Black Rose
Celebrated podiatrist Margaret Dabbs has a large 3-free nail polish range. As well as being formulated without the toxic trio – formaldehyde, toluene and DBP – it also contains vitamin E for nail strength and wild rose extract to prevent infection. The polish needs two thick coats with its medium-thickness brush and lasted three days looking vibrant and chip-free before it began to chip. Our nails painted with Black Rose, a deep mahogany, dried in 15 minutes. The only disappointment was the absence of a promised wild rose scent.
Nailberry, 15ml: £14.50, Look Fantastic
Non-toxic count: 12-free
Our favourite shade: Maliblue
Starting out as a Chelsea nail bar, Nailberry now has 57 shades in its collection, all of which are 12-free (eliminating alcohol and animal derivatives alongside the main list of chemicals), making this brand the most toxin-free on the list. It is also vegan, gluten-free and certified halal. Nailberry recently launched its summer-ready LA Heat collection. Our pick is Maliblue, a stunning electric blue polish, which just needs a base and top coat to give it full coverage. These bottles contain the thickest, flattest brushes in the list, which can spread varnish in as little as two strokes. Our nails dried in 15 minutes and stayed chip-free for five days. The formula also includes UV filters to stop the colour fading in the sunlight, and although the polish wasn’t tested in a tropical climate, we didn’t notice any fade in sunny European spring weather.
Butter London Patent Shine 10X Nail Lacquer, 11ml: from £12, Feel Unique
Non-toxic count: 8-free: formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, DBP, toluene, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, TPHP
Our favourite shade: Steady On
British brand Butter London started out with 3-free nail varnishes. Today it’s an 8-free formula, with bamboo extract to encourage healthier nails. There are 47 highly pigmented shades to choose from. Finding a light pink or nude that delivers maximum coverage and shine is a challenge, but Steady On looks fantastic after just one coat of polish that dries in 15 minutes. The short, thick, flat brush helps to create a clean and even coverage and the finish looks almost gel-like. Butter claims it’s chip-resistant and this stayed in place for six days before signs of wear (chipping and gloss-fading) started to appear.
Zoya, 15ml: £11, Holland & Barrett
Non-toxic count: 5-free: formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, toluene, camphor, DBP
Our favourite shade: Jana
Created in 1992, Zoya was ahead of the non-toxic curve. There are more than 300 colours to choose from in its 5-free range and formulations are vegan. The brush looks slim, but it expands to let the bristles glide evenly over the nail. Our manicure dried in 15 minutes and while the brand suggests two coats, our tester found her surprisingly glossy one coat lasted for five days without chipping. Jana, a mixture of mauve, grey and purple, is a stunning colour to wear any time of the year, but with this number in the collection, you’re guaranteed to find one you’ll like. At the cheaper end of the scale, we’d say this brand is a bit of bargain for the quality.
Pacifica, £11.99, Holland & Barrett
Non-toxic count: 7-free: parabens, DBP, toluene, xylene, camphor, formaldehyde, resin
Our favourite shade: Totally Drift
This fragrance brand also makes vegan and 7-free nail polishes (see above). There are 66 shades and Totally Drift is a matte grey to rival any of the bigger players. The brush, also 100 per cent vegan, is a medium width but the ease of application comes from the quality of the polish, which created an even finish as soon as it touched the tester’s nail and dried in 15 minutes. It looked glossy with one coat, but we’d say two is best. We found it chipped in a few days, but the glossiness lasted for five days.
Cienna Rose, 13ml: £9, Cienna Rose
Non-toxic count: 12-free: formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, DBP, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, toluene, triphenyl phosphate, hydroquinone monomethyl ether, hydroquinone monomethyl ether, animal-derived ingredients, parabens
Our favourite shade: Beach Please
UK-based Cienna’s polishes are an impressive 12-free (although bear in mind that number includes its vegan credentials). The formula also contains pro vitamin B5, vitamin E and is infused with lemongrass oil to nourish nails and nail beds. There are 29 fun colours – we’d say this brand is pitched at a younger market than some on the list. Beach Please is grey with a subtle pink-purple shimmer. Two coats with the short, thick brush is enough for this polish to glisten and it dries in 20 minutes. It lasted a week with no chipping, but the shimmery appearance started to fade away by day five.
Dr Remedy, 14ml: £11.95, Feet Life
Non-toxic count: 5-free: formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, toluene, camphor and DBP
Our favourite shade: Trusting Turquoise
Formulated by two podiatric surgeons, this 40-shade, 5-free range is designed to protect and strengthen nails, so is ideal for anyone with concerns around nail health. The formula contains natural ingredients, including wheat protein, tea tree oil, garlic bulb extract, and lavender to address dry, brittle and discoloured nails. These claims would need to be tested over a longer period but in terms of applying the polish, the thin brush expands out quite widely, meaning it covers the nail well, and two coats does the job. The bright turquoise we tested stayed vibrant for just under a week and only started to fade and chip on day six.
Autograph Flash Gel Nail: £7.50, M&S
Non-toxic count: 5-free: formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, DBP, toluene, camphor
Our favourite shade: Bare
There are just seven colours in this good-value range, but it’s encouraging to see a major high street player join the non-toxic set. The shades are restricted to nude, pink and red hues and are vegan, paraben and alcohol-free. While Autograph doesn’t shout about its formulation, looking at the ingredients, you can see it is free of five of the main nasties and is great for anyone who is after a gel-like finish. The brush is short and flat, which allows for an even, clean sweep across your nail. Just two coats are needed and it dries within 15 to 20 minutes with the thick, cushioned appearance of gel. Our manicure using the nude Bare lasted five days without chipping, which is always impressive with a lighter polish as they tend to be thinner than other varnishes.
The Verdict: vegan and non-toxic nail polishes
If you are a nail varnish fanatic then it is worth investing in a bottle of Smith & Cult. Not only are the bottles stunning and look great on a shelf, the powerful pigments do not fade or chip for at least a week, while being 8-free. However, if you have a lower budget, we would recommend the leader of the non-toxic brigade – Zoya. The varnish is seriously glossy, even without any top coat, and there are an impressive 300 shades (and counting) to choose from.