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

non-toxic nail polish

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. 

1 Mazz Hanna x ORLY Manifestation Kit ($35; orlybeauty.com)

The line's latest collaboration with celebrity manicurist Mazz Hanna features breathable polish that is water-based, vegan, and 13-free. The formula also includes nutrients for your nails, such as argan oil, pro-vitamin B5, and vitamin C. As a bonus perk, the kit includes Hanna's signature mani-embellishment: shaman-blessed crystals.

non-toxic nail polish

2 Sienna Byron Bay 7-Free Polish In Courage ($25; theorganicbunny.com)

This Aussie brand deserves props for their commitment to creating clean polish, which is free of virtually all the most questionable ingredients — including benzophenone-1. And the burnished red hue is perfect for minimalists who still want a pop of color.

3 10 Free Chemistry in Smooth Sailing ($14; amazon.com)

New launch alert! We are so here for a perfect pale blue (aptly called Smooth Sailing), and this one is 10+ free, vegan, and cruelty-free. The brand also offers color and care products featuring their proprietary Nail-NRGY Bio Peptide Complex to add strength and resilience to your cleaner manis and pedis.

4 Sally Hansen Nail Polish Good. Kind. Pure. in Suntastic ($7; target.com)

The drugstore brand just launched their first plant-based, vegan polish. It is 16-free, budget-friendly, and available in 34 shades — including a pastel yellow that is best displayed sunny days.

5 ZOYA Nail Lacquer in Ryan ($10; ulta.com)

Navy looks sleek and sophisticated year-round. Zoya's lineup of polishes are inspired by the runway *and* are formulated sans benzophenone-1.

6 Orosa Beauty in Wisteria ($31; orosabeauty.com)

First of all, if you struggle to paint your own nails, this line of professional-grade polish can help thanks to its wide, “nail-hugging” brush. While you bask in the perfection of this lilac shade, you can peruse the fourteen different ingredients they exclude on their aptly-named “Nope List.”

non-toxic nail polish

7 Olive & June in OJSM ($8; oliveandjune.com)

The insta-beloved trio of salons sell their very own line of 7-free varnish. The glittery, rose gold shade above — named OJSM for their Santa Monica location — reminds us of those California sunsets that our wildest dreams are made of (especially in the dead of winter).

non-toxic nail polish

8 Copo New York in Napa Cab ($14; coponewyork.com)

Behold the most perfect cabernet for nails that we have ever laid eyes on, inspired by vino itself. The NY-made, 10-free line of lacquers use organic ingredients and are totally transparent about what they leave out.

9 Sundays in Shade 27 ($18; dearsundays.com)

The salon and nailcare brand's entire range is 10-free, cruelty-free, and vegan. Grab a versatile, dusty pink-meets-nude shade that is worthy of becoming an everyday staple. If you want to be extra, it partners well with cherry red accent nails.

10 lakur by Londontown in Guilty Pleasure ($11.20; anthropologie.com)

Speaking of classic red polish, here's one we love from lakur by Londontown's line of PETA-approved pigments. These 9-free formulas that exclude formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, TPHP, Acetone, Ethyl Tosylamide, Xylene, DBP, and camphor.

non-toxic nail polish

11 Paint-Box in Like Wild ($22; paint-box.com)

Paint-Box offers pigmented picks in 10-free formulations that are vegan, gluten-free, paraben-free, and cruelty-free. Earth sign or not, this deep green shade is super on-trend. If you're going for a statement color, here's our pick.

12 Nails Inc. NailPure Top Coat ($15; sephora.com)

If you want a glossy finish, try the topcoat in Nails Inc.'s NailPure 10-free collection. It utilizes an oxygen resin complex for long-lasting shine, and their quick-drying formula will keep your nails looking fresh from the salon… from home.

13 AILA Cosmetics in Supernova ($14; amazon.com)

Bubblegum pink is a perennial classic and Aila's is a perfect rendition. The award-winning, physician-developed, vegan nail care line offers a variety of gorgeous chip-resistant shades.

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