If you’ve been paying attention to the clean beauty movement, you’ll know that brands have steadily been incorporating more ethical practices and streamlined ingredients to their products. However, different brands have different standards and ingredients they use to define “clean.”
Some of these brands choose to leave out ingredients banned by the European Union, which has stricter cosmetics regulations than the United States. Others leave out ingredients that can be harmful when inhaled. The jury is out on whether each of these chemicals can have long-term health effects. But since your body can absorb chemicals through your nail bed, you may want to take a second look at the ingredients in your polish collection.
What does it mean to be a "clean" nail polish?
Some phrases might initially jump out at you when you’re shopping for nontoxic nail polish for the first time. To help you get better acquainted, here's a glossary on the most common terms you should know:
- 3-free indicates that a product is made without the three most toxic chemicals most often found in traditional nail polishes: formaldehyde (an ingredient that prevents polish chipping but is a potential carcinogen); toluene (a polish solvent that may also be a neurotoxin); and dibutyl phthalate (a chemical that makes polish flexible and chip-free, but is banned by the EU for possible reproductive harm).
- 7-free polishes don't contain the "toxic trio," along with controversial additives like formaldehyde resin (which forms a strong coating on your nails but could cause respiratory issues); camphor (a chemical that creates a glossy sheen but could cause headaches or dizziness); ethyl tosylamide (which acts as a film former but is also banned in the EU for being antibiotic resistant); and xylene (an ingredient which thins out nail polish that could cause damage to the central nervous system).
- 10-free polish not only exclude the harmful chemicals mentioned above, bur they also leave out parabens (preservatives that prevent bacteria growth but can mimic estrogen in the body, causing reproductive harm) along with tert-butyl hydroperoxide (which aids in the plasticization process and can be toxic if it enters your bloodstream) and animal by-products from their formulas.
- Plant-based nail polishes are made with 100% natural ingredients. Many brands even make sure the polish brush is all-natural, too.
- Leaping Bunny certified is a trusted label that goes to products and brands that have strict cruelty-free procedures and policies in place, including verifying that they never test on animals.
What are the benefits of "clean" nail polish?
Something clean brands have in common is that they have a wide range of polish colors and finishes that perform as well as the nail care you’re used to, without the worry of using potentially harmful ingredients. They come off just as easily as other polishes you’ve tried, as well. If you have sensitive skin, nontoxic nail polish may also deliver a lower risk of developing contact dermatitis.
Ahead are some of our favorite nontoxic nail polishes that are equally chic and eco-friendly.
These polishes are vegan, cruelty-free and have 73% plant-based ingredients. The collection has everyday neutrals as well as vibrant colors like “Time for a Reset” coral and “Soul Surfing” periwinkle. On application, I noticed I only needed one coat to get the job done without chipping. They dried down quickly and maintained their shine. I also liked that the applicator had a wide top, making it easier to grip when applying polish.
If you consider yourself an at-home manicurist, you’ve probably seen Olive and June on your Instagram feed (and on Shop TODAY). They have a huge range of colors — from new spring hues like “Lava” orange-red to a lavender “Cockatoo” to bestsellers such as “Bright & Focused” yellow and the rosy “LD” — are 7-free, as well as vegan and cruelty-free. Olive and June has tons of little innovations that definitely helped me create less mess. Their brushes are wide and they have a patented bottle handle called The Poppy that gives me an easy stroke of polish.
Côte is a 10-free nail polish company with beautiful, sleek packaging and even more beautiful colors. With over 100 shades in mattes and shimmers, I could change my polish every week for almost two years and not run out of new colors. Some of these colors are associated with nonprofit organizations like Beauty Bus and The Conscious Kid, and some of the proceeds go to them through the Côte Cares program.
Base Coat’s polishes are 10-free, with some of the most exciting colors and shade names on the market. Who wouldn’t want to apply a black polish called “My Soul” or a deep red called “Mighty Karma?” The polishes are pigmented and easy to apply and last on nails for a long time. Plus, they’re vegan and cruelty-free.
This vegan and cruelty-free brand has beautiful shades like “In Line for Wine” merlot and “Pistache” green at an affordable price. I loved the little elephant on the bottle and fell deeper in love with the diverse colors. The polishes are relatively affordable and they even have a soy-based nail polish remover that is incredibly soft on nails while still being effective.
Sally Hansen is one of America’s most beloved and accessible nail polish brands, so I was pleased when they came out with a 16-free, vegan and plant-based polish. With 34 glossy colors to choose from, it’s exciting that a big brand made this step into cleaner nail polish. They also have a great top coat to go with the polish.
Pacifica makes a lot of my favorite natural skin care and makeup products, so it makes sense for them to branch out into nail polish. These clean polishes are 16-free, plant-based, vegan and cruelty free. There’s 21 shades to choose from, ranging from mattes to sparkly shades, as well as two toppers: one matte and one shimmer, so you can change up how your polish looks.
This brand has a mouthful of benefits like being vegan, plant-based, cruelty-free and Leaping Bunny certified. Even more impressive is the polish is enriched with vitamins A and B5, biotin and calcium. So many nail polishes strip our nails, so to see a polish that puts vitamins back in is exciting. Plus, there are 77 colors to choose from!
I love this brand, and not just because they have a shade called “Abby” in my favorite color. I love that this nontoxic polish is incredibly long-wearing, and that there are 400 shades to choose from. They also sell tons of accessories for the perfect at-home mani, like a wider brush for more stability, hand creams, base and top coats and more.
Sundays is an amazing salon in New York City, and even their bottled polishes feel like a spa day. From crisp packaging to inviting colors perfect for spring, their 10-free and vegan polishes are a real treat yourself moment. I also love that they sell sets of polish as a cute gift for your bestie or even yourself.
For more stories like this, check out:
- 17 beauty products to try this spring, according to a beauty editor
- How to do your nails at home, according to a celebrity manicurist
- This $10 polish finally got me to stop biting my nails