If you wear nail polish, you might be applying more than glossy color to your fingertips.

As you may have heard, nail polish is one of the worst types of cosmetic. It can contain many harmful chemicals that are likely to damage not only your beautiful nails, but also your health! Let’s go through the 6 most toxic ingredients together…

Top 6 toxic ingredients you should avoid in nail polish


Toluene is used in nail products to suspend the color and form a smooth finish across the nail.

Exposure to this toxic chemical can result in temporary effects such as headaches, dizziness and cracked skin, as well as more serious effects. 1 According to the EWG database, “toluene is a potent neurotoxicant that acts as an irritant, impairs breathing, and causes nausea. Mother’s exposure to toluene vapors during pregnancy may cause developmental damage in the fetus. In human epidemiological studies and in animal studies toluene has been also associated with toxicity to the immune system and a possible link to blood cancer such as malignant lymphoma.” 2

In recent years, three major nail polish companies—OPI, Orly and Sally Hansen—have removed toluene from their nail polishes, largely due to a multi-year campaign by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Formaldehyde and Formaldehyde Resin

Formaldehyde is used as a nail-hardening agent and disinfectant for nail care tools.

According to the International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (IARC), formaldehyde is ‘carcinogenic to humans’ and has been linked to nasal and nasopharyngeal cancers. The IARC also investigated the link with a higher rate of leukaemia among workers exposed to formaldehyde and concluded “there is strong but not sufficient evidence for a causal association between leukaemia and occupational exposure to formaldehyde”. 3

European health protections now limit the concentration of formaldehyde in cosmetics to 0.2%. However, in the U.S., there are no restrictions on the levels of formaldehyde allowed in any body care products. 4

Formaldehyde Resin (or Tosylamide) is a polymer derived from formaldehyde that should also be avoided.

Dibutyl phthalate

Dibutyl phthalate (or DBP) is used mainly in nail products as a solvent for dyes and as a plasticizer that prevents nail polishes from becoming brittle. It is a reproductive and developmental toxicant banned for use in cosmetics by the European Union 5.

In laboratory experiments, it has been shown to cause developmental defects and male reproductive malformations 6 7. DBP, like other phthalates, is also suspected to be linked to infertility issues.5.


Camphor is used to give conventional nail polishes their glossy, shiny appearance. It’s not as toxic as the other ingredients mentioned in this blog post, but it can still cause nausea, dizziness, and headaches when inhaled, especially in large doses, making it a concern for nail technicians.9. It is poisonous when ingested in large quantities, but that is unlikely to happen with nail polish.


Parabens are a preservative widely used in the cosmetics industry. They are easily absorbed into the skin and have been linked to breast cancer, reproductive health problems and hormonal disruptions. They have also been linked to ecological harm, as low levels of butylparaben can kill coral, according to laboratory tests. 10. In the US, the FDA limits the levels of parabens allowed in foods and beverages, but it does not regulate these chemicals in cosmetics and body care products. 10


Triphenyl phosphate, also called TPHP, is a well-known suspected endocrine disruptor that is commonly used to make plastics and as a fire retardant in foam furniture. Cosmetics companies use it because TPHP makes nail polish more flexible and durable.

A study by Duke University confirmed that TPHP enters the body of women who apply nail polish 12. In animal and in-vitro studies, this toxic chemical has been shown to disturb the lipid metabolism and the DNA damage repair system 13, alter the oestrogen function 14, and cause endocrine and reproductive disruption 15

The European Chemicals Agency considers TPHP to be “very toxic” to aquatic life, with potentially long-lasting effects 16

TPHP is used by many big brands, including OPI, Revlon and Maybelline. Click here for a full list.

My recommended nail polishes

If you are looking at avoiding all the above nasty ingredients, I recommend trying “water-based” nail polishes. There are a few brands available on the internet, and these nail polishes usually contain less toxic ingredients than other big conventional brands. Personally, I really like two brands:

One is distributed by Sabaku Co, the Australian company behind the awesome Hannahpad Australia online shop. It’s called Ueba Esou – Gofun Nails, and the nail polish can be removed with eucalyptus oil or just warm water. All nail polishes are made in Kyoto, Japan, and there are also many beautiful colours available!

The second brand is Little Ondine, a peelable and vegan nail polish sold by Flora & Fauna. Easy to apply and remove (as you can see in this video).

What do you think? What nail polish brand would you recommend?


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Disclaimer:  Any recommendations are based on personal, not professional, opinion only.  All information on the Mademoiselle Organic blog is meant for educational and informational purposes only. This post contains affiliate links. For information on how to use this site, please read my Blog Policy page.

  1. OSHA inforsheet, accessed in January 2016, “Toluene”, https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3646.pdf
  2. EWG, Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, “Substance information: Toluene”, http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/706577/TOLUENE/
  3. IARC, “IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans Volume 88 (2006): Formaldehyde, 2-Butoxyethanol and 1-tert-Butoxypropan-2-ol”, 2006, http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol88/index.php
  4. EWG, Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, “Substance information:FORMALDEHYDE”, http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/702500/FORMALDEHYDE/
  5. EWG, Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, “Substance information: Dibutyl phthalate”, http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/701929/DIBUTYL_PHTHALATE
  6. Henley DV, Korach KS., “Endocrine-disrupting chemicals use distinct mechanisms of action to modulate endocrine system function.”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16690802
  7. Barlow NJ, McIntyre BS, Foster PM., Jan-Feb 2004, “Male reproductive tract lesions at 6, 12, and 18 months of age following in utero exposure to di(n-butyl) phthalate.”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14713552
  8. EWG, Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, “Substance information: Dibutyl phthalate”, http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/701929/DIBUTYL_PHTHALATE
  9. Dr Mercola, November 2014, “Do You Know What’s in Your Nail Polish?“, http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/11/22/toxic-trio-nail-polish.aspx
  10. EWG, September 2008, “TEEN GIRLS’ BODY BURDEN OF HORMONE-ALTERING COSMETICS CHEMICALS: COSMETICS CHEMICALS OF CONCERN”, http://www.ewg.org/research/teen-girls-body-burden-hormone-altering-cosmetics-chemicals/cosmetics-chemicals-concern
  11. EWG, September 2008, “TEEN GIRLS’ BODY BURDEN OF HORMONE-ALTERING COSMETICS CHEMICALS: COSMETICS CHEMICALS OF CONCERN”, http://www.ewg.org/research/teen-girls-body-burden-hormone-altering-cosmetics-chemicals/cosmetics-chemicals-concern
  12. Johanna Congleton, Senior Scientist, EWG, published in October 2015, “Endocrine Disruptor In Nail Polishes Gets Into Women’s Bodies”, http://www.ewg.org/research/nailed
  13.  Zhongkun Du, Yan Zhang, Guowei Wang, Jianbiao Peng, Zunyao Wang & Shixiang Gao, Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 21827, published in February 2016,”TPhP exposure disturbs carbohydrate metabolism, lipid metabolism, and the DNA damage repair system in zebrafish liver”, http://www.nature.com/articles/srep21827
  14.  Boris V. Krivoshiev, Freddy Dardenne, Adrian Covaci, Ronny Blust, Steven J. Husson, Toxicology in Vitro, published in June 2016, “Assessing in-vitro estrogenic effects of currently-used flame retardants”, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0887233316300443
  15. Liu X, Ji K, Jo A, Moon HB, Choi K., PubMed, published in 2013, “Effects of TDCPP or TPP on gene transcriptions and hormones of HPG axis, and their consequences on reproduction in adult zebrafish (Danio rerio)”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23603146
  16. European Chemicals Agency, “Substance information”, https://echa.europa.eu/en/web/guest/substance-information/-/substanceinfo/100.003.739

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