What’s The Deal With ’16-Free’ Nail Polish? We Asked Experts To Weigh In On The Safety & Efficacy

Then tested the formulas ourselves.

As the clean beauty movement gains momentum, customers have come to expect increasingly health-conscious product options — and brands are racing to deliver them, but in some categories, like nail polish, it’s still a work in progress.

“Super clean nail polish is not so far out of reach,” says Tal Pink, VP of Business Development at ORLY International, “but it may involve new application methods or a shift in people’s expectations of wear.” This is because the ingredients responsible for everything from adhering polish to the nail bed for no-chip wear to protecting color from UV-induced changes are the same ones some deem questionable. As a result of limited or inconclusive research, the question of ingredient safety is spurring continual changes in the marketing and formulation of nail polish. 

As advocates for clean cosmetics point out, the EU bans over 1,300 ingredients; while in the United States, all but a measly 11 remain legal. It’s a huge discrepancy that includes the so-called “toxic trio” of conclusively health-harming ingredients — dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, and formaldehyde — which were banned in the EU in 2004

Subsequent research, however, has identified several more ingredients — like formaldehyde resin, camphor, TPHP, and most recently benzophenone-1 (a chemical cousin of sorts to the endocrine-disruptor, benzophenone-3) — that have come under recent scrutiny for everything from endocrine disruption, to potential links to cancer. As recently as 2015, a study identified TPHP — a common replacement for the plasticizer, DBP, and a known endocrine disruptor — to be absorbed through the nail bed and into the body. 

But some experts would argue that just because something is absorbed through the nail bed and into the body, doesn’t actually mean it’s harming us. Cosmetic chemist Valerie George, co-host of The Beauty Brains, claims that the nail plate is virtually impermeable to anything but water. As she points out, it is important to consider those preparatory factors (i.e. buffing, polish removal, acetone) that lead to the breakdown of the nail bed’s surface and leave nails more permeable in the presence of chemicals.

non-toxic nail polish

This is the background for the labels of “3-free” going all the way up to “16-free” now being introduced by non-toxic nail polish brands. Although labels are used to signify the absence of questionable ingredients, there is no label uniformity between nail polish brands as to what excluded ingredients are. Among other things, this means that there is no guarantee that a “16-free” polish is “cleaner” than a “7-free” polish. The burden lies on you to check ingredients lists to know for sure that any you want to avoid are in fact, being omitted. Take, for example, the 7-free brand Sienna Byron Bay — their polishes are free of benzophenone-1, whereas most 10-free+ brands’ are not.

There is one more step that consumers can take, at least until further research is conducted to help us understand the impact of these chemicals on our health. “It’s very important [to purchase from brands doing ingredient testing],” George notes. “It is very hard as a consumer to know who is doing the testing and who isn’t.” Hence experts unanimously recommend shopping from brands that make transparency a known priority. When you use polish made by companies that source their ingredients in-house, or that conduct independent ingredient testing, you have the best chance of knowing what you are putting on your body.

The bottom line is, there are nail polish brands doing their due diligence in terms of research and ingredient testing — you just have to seek them out. Until the laws change, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the names of questionable ingredients while taking an extra moment to scan ingredients lists. While sampling the wide array of colors, we will simply have to note any differences in longevity, chip-resistance, and finishes as we go. But you’re in luck, because we’ve already tried and tested some of the most popular non-toxic nail polishes on the market. Below, the ones that topped our tips. 


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