3 ingredients to avoid in nail polishes?

by Gio
three ingredients to avoid in nail polish

Have you noticed?

These days you can’t buy a nail polish without someone telling you what’s NOT in it.

“Buy me, I’m free fom Toluene!”

“No, pick me!  I’m free from Toluene AND Formaldehyde”.

It’s like a race. The brand who removes the most nasties win.

But are there any nasties in nail polish? Mmmm…

I’ve put under the microscope three of the worst offenders that are quickly being removed from nail polishes: Dibutyl Phthalates, Formaldehyde and Toluene.

Here’s what I discovered:

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

What is it? Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP) is a plasticizer. It makes nail polish more flexible so it’s easier to apply and doesn’t chip easily.

Why does it have a bad rep? DBP causes birth defects and miscarriages in animal tests. Scary, huh?

Is it dangerous for humans? Not likely. In the study above, mice were exposed to a huge amount of DBP. In nail polishes, the dose is tiny and very likely safe.

Verdict: probably safe, but easy to avoid these days (just in case).

Formaldehyde Resin

What is it? Formaldehyde is a preservative used to kill bacteria, fungi and germs (it’s also used to preserve dead bodies). The type used in nail polishes is Tosylamide/Formaldehyde resin. It’s there to harden the nail polish and make it more resilient.

Why does it have a bad rep? Huh, did you miss the part where I said it’s used to preserve corpses? It’s carcinogenic, too.

Is it dangerous for humans? In high does, yeah! In the tiny amounts used in cosmetics, it’s unlikely to cause problems. Plus, Tosylamide/Formaldehyde resin is less irritating than formaldehyde itself. Still, if you’re a manicurist, nail technician or someone who paints nails a lot, make sure to do it in a well-ventilated environment so you don’t breathe in its fumes.

Verdict: probably safe for most people. I prefer to avoid it.


What is it? Toluene is a solvent. It dissolve all the pigments and other ingredients in your nail polish so it applies smoothly (no clumping).

Why does it have a bad rep? It can cause irritations, headaches, dizziness and nausea.

Is it safe for humans? It depends. If inhaled too often over a long period of time, it can damage your lungs, liver and kindneys. But in the tiny doses used in cosmetics, it’s probably safe.

Verdict: very likely safe (in nail polishes).

The Bottom Line

It is the dose that makes the poison. Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Formaldehyde and Toluene are dangerous in high doses, but likely harmless in the tiny amounts used in nail polishes. Most brands have removed them from their nail polishes, making them easier to avoid anyway.

Do you avoid Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Formaldehyde and Toluene in your nail polishes? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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tanveer June 15, 2010 - 12:14 pm

I do try to avoid these as far as possible. I use Jordana nail paints which are these Big 3 free 🙂

beautifulwithbrains June 15, 2010 - 5:22 pm

Tanveer, good for you. I’ve never heard of Jordana but I’m glad to hear they are Big 3 free. 🙂

Nikki June 15, 2010 - 2:13 pm

Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips! I will give it a notice starting now 🙂

beautifulwithbrains June 15, 2010 - 5:29 pm

Nikki, you’re welcome. That’s good, I think it’s best to avoid these ingredients as much as possible, at least until we get more info on their safety (or lack of). 🙂

Dao June 15, 2010 - 6:15 pm

I try to avoid them as much as possible. Most brands I use do not formulate with them. Formaldehyde also causes problem to people who have respiratory issues. It has very low boiling point (30-something degree C), that’s why it is so good for making nps dry faster.

beautifulwithbrains June 15, 2010 - 6:49 pm

Dao, thanks for sharing, I didn’t know that. Formaldehyde is a really nasty ingredient and I try to avoid it in all products if I can. 🙂

Trisha June 15, 2010 - 6:20 pm

There’s some nail polish brand, I don’t remember which, that advertises the Formaldehyde like it’s a good thing. It’s not just on the ingredients list, but listed largely and in bold right under the brand name. I always thought that was so weird. Why are they advertising that like it’s awesome. The only time i want Formaldehyde is when I’m dead.

beautifulwithbrains June 15, 2010 - 6:53 pm

Trisha, that’s unbelievable! Why would they do that? Don’t they know that Formaldehyde has a bad reputation and rightly so? With all the cosmetics ingredients available there is no reason to use it, let alone promote it.

Anastacia June 15, 2010 - 11:03 pm

That is awesome info! Great to know!

beautifulwithbrains June 16, 2010 - 10:10 am

Anastacia, I’m glad you found it helpful. 🙂

Tash November 19, 2010 - 3:19 am

I don’t use nail polish full stop! I used to buy the expensive polishes including OPI, but threw them away once learning of these harmful ingredients in them! Tbh, nail polish seems like such a drag, taking the time to put it on, wait for it to dry, hope that it doesn’t chip and then take it off with more chemicals! I don’t see the point when there are toxins in polishes. So I just buff and file 🙂 it leaves them shiny!

beautifulwithbrains November 23, 2010 - 8:47 pm

Tash, that’s a bit extreme imo although I understand where you are coming from. Most nail polishes don’t contain these harmful ingredients anymore and they’re safe these days though. But I agree with you that the process of applying and removing nail polishes is so boring!

Chemistry correction September 6, 2011 - 7:36 am

Uhh… Benzene and toluene are two different chemicals. They’re both toxic. Benzene is too toxic to be allowed in cosmetics. Toluene usually doesn’t make it into nail polish anymore but sometimes does. I agree it’s to be avoided, but it’s a different chemical from benzene. Benzene is C6H6. Toluene is C7H8.

Also, the article on this site about tosylamide/formaldehyde resin says it’s mostly safe and doesn’t release much or any formaldehyde. Why the contradiction?

beautifulwithbrains September 6, 2011 - 6:41 pm

Chemistry Correction, I know they are too different chemicals and I feel so silly now. I was meant to write Methylbenzene and didn’t realize that I had written that too already. I guess that’s one of those mistakes that are easily overlooked when you rewrite the same sentence a few times. You’re sure you’ve written everything right, but forgot to remove a bit. But thanks for pointing that out, I have fixed it.

As I stated above, I said that Formaldehyde is a toxic chemical but safe in the small amount used in cosmetics, although lots of people prefer to avoid it and I don’t like using it either. I don’t think it’ll kill me but there are better ingredients around. Tosylamide/formaldehyde resin is a different substance that has different side effects. Again, it won’t kill you, but it’s one of those ingredients that I prefer to avoid when I can.

The above chemistry nerd September 6, 2011 - 7:44 pm

Thank you for clarifying and correcting. Your site seems to have a fairly reasonable/practical approach most of the time about what is and isn’t dangerous, so I feel like it’s important to notice errors, so your articles can maintain credibility and be taken seriously by their intended audience. Cheers!

beautifulwithbrains September 7, 2011 - 6:22 pm

I agree with you and thanks for pointing out any mistakes. I like to evaluate ingredients and their dangers based on scientific studies. Sadly, there are lots of ingredients that get a bad reputation solely because they are synthetic when they are perfectly safe and that’s unfair. I don’t believe that companies put toxic stuff in cosmetics (they just can’t), but every now and then, I come across an ingredient that I’d rather avoid because they can irritate skin (like alcohol denat) or I just think there are better options around (like in the case of formaldehyde resin).

Sugarplum February 24, 2012 - 2:44 am

Today I wanted buy a China Glaze nail polish, wich I read is three free, but I read it contains DBP and formaldehyde, but I read in serveral blogs is three free, so….¿¿¿??? Im confused…

beautifulwithbrains February 24, 2012 - 10:45 am

Sugarplum, I believe China Glaze went 3 big free a few years ago, but they still keep using a formaldehyde resin, which is not the same thing as formaldehyde and not as dangerous.


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