What You Need to Know About Eco-Friendly Nail Polish

LeafScore is reader-supported. We may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Written by Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT


Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

Sustainability Expert

Leigh Matthews is a sustainability expert and long time vegan. Her work on solar policy has been published in Canada's National Observer.


Getting your nails done, or painting your nails at home, might seem perfectly innocuous, but the reality is that those pots of liquid color can contain carcinogenic chemicals that are bad for your nails, overall health, the environment, and the non-human animals on which they’re tested. Before you cancel your next mani-pedi, though, here’s the good news: an increasing number of nail salons use safe, non-toxic, cruelty-free nail polish. What’s more, you can now pick up your own eco-friendly and animal-friendly nail polish to use at home.

So, what do you need to look out for when choosing nail polish? What’s lurking in those brightly colored bottles?

Before we get to the science, here’s a little background on how regulators safeguard your health and the environment (or don’t), some tips on what to do with old nail polish and other cosmetics, and some alternatives to toxic nail products.

Who regulates nail polish and cosmetics?

Nail polish and other nail products are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act). That is, unless they are intended to treat nail fungus or similar, in which case they are regulated as drugs. This means that nail polish sold to consumers must feature a warning label if they present a health hazard. However, many nail products that contain potentially harmful ingredients are allowed on the market because they are deemed safe when used according to specific directions.

For instance, nail polish may be harmful when swallowed, but not when painted as intended on nails (and not nibbled at after!). For kids and nail-biters, this is where current protections get a little tricky as nail polish may be used as directed at first but then be consumed afterwards.

Nail polish sold to consumers, including online, has to feature a list of ingredients in descending order of amount in the product. Nail products used in salons or given away as free samples don’t need to disclose this information, however.

The FDA does not oversee the operation of nail salons or private manicurists and nail technicians. This is the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), who have released specific guidelines on “Health Hazards in Nail Salons”.

In the EU, nail polish is covered by the EU Cosmetic Regulation which is considerably more robust than US standards. Indeed, a piece of legislation was put forward in Connecticut in January calling for any cosmetics sold in the state to “meet the chemical safety standards established by the European Union”. Although the bill is unlikely to become law, its introduction is a good indication that many folks are fed up with the lax regulations in the US. Compared to Europe, the US allows a plethora of chemicals in nail polish, makeup, toothpaste, shampoo, and other household products and food, while many of these chemicals are banned in Europe due to concerns over health effects. 

Formaldehyde, for instance, has long been banned in cosmetics, including nail polish, in the EU, as are parabens and coat tar dyes (often found in nail polish and eye shadow), which are also banned in Canada. More than 1,300 chemicals have been banned or restricted in the EU for use in cosmetics, compared to just 11 in the US. You can check the list of restricted and banned substances here at any time, making this a handy resource whenever you’re buying products in the US. 

As with many household products, nail polish does not need to be approved by the FDA before it goes on the market, with the exception of most colorants used in polish (see those regulations here). Instead, the FDA will only step in to take action against companies whose products do not comply with regulations. 

Top tip: Be careful about where you get your next manicure. Nail salons are also notorious for poor working conditions and for being part of a modern day human slave trade and human trafficking. That’s why, in the UK, the Let’s Nail It campaign was established to fight salon slavery. The organization behind the campaign put together a list of what to watch out for in a nail salon and what to do if you suspect something is amiss.

In addition to concerns about toxicity, some nail polish can easily catch fire! So, it’s best not to light a cigarette or use a gas stove, curling iron, or other heating element too soon after doing your nails.

What’s the alternative to toxic nail polish?

Formaldehyde, DBP, and toluene are the toxic trio of nail polish and are thought to be the main culprits for post-manicure headaches, dizziness, and other symptoms. These chemicals are also linked to reproductive abnormalities and cancer. 

Creating formulations without the big three proved something of a headache for the industry, however. Early ‘3-free’ nail polish lacked staying power, intensity of color, and smoothness of application and finish. Thankfully, more modern formulations can easily match toxic polish for performance and vibrancy, so you no longer need to compromise when choosing new polish.

As such, if you like your digits to sport a little color, but have concerns about the chemicals in nail polish, you now have a wide range of options for non-toxic nail polish. Catching up to the little guys, big brand names now offer safer nail polish than ever before, thanks to conscious consumers creating a demand for such products. And, happily, it’s not just kids’ nail polish that is now non-toxic.

The best non-toxic nail polishes are typically water-based and are free from phthalates, toluene, formaldehyde, acetates, alcohol, glycol ethers, and harmful FD&C dyes. Some nail polishes are even edible as they’re made with entirely food grade ingredients. Check out my recommendations for non-toxic eco-friendly nail polish here.

And, if you love a little sparkle but are trying to avoid microplastics, you’ll be happy to learn that top quality eco-friendly non-toxic glitter also exists. 

As for nail art, you can always take a leaf out of Vivienne Westwood’s book and opt for some Marian Newman-inspired up-cycled nail art using bits of recycled metallic materials such as ribbons, wrapping paper, and old bottle labels. Just be sure to recycle the materials once you’re done.

What to do with old nail polish

Here at Leaf Score, I would usually recommend that the most eco-friendly products are those that you already own, given that buying new products means using more resources. However, because there’s a high chance that the nail polish already in your possession is riddled with undesirable chemicals, my suggestion would be to replace it forthwith. That means figuring out what to do with your old nail polish.

If you have unopened polish, you might consider regifting it or donating it to the thrift store or other charity. You may also be able to donate gently used cosmetics including polish to a local shelter, but be sure to call and check first so you don’t create more work for already overtaxed staff and volunteers! If you’re in the UK, check out a charity called Give and Makeup which was set up a few years ago with the goal of collecting toiletries, cosmetics, and clothing for women and children in need.

If it doesn’t seem quite fair to donate something you wouldn’t feel comfortable using yourself, you may just want to dispose of your old nail polish outright. This is not as simple as throwing it in the trash or emptying it down the drain, though, because the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies nail polish as household hazardous waste! 

As such, like old paint, motor oil and used cooking oil, you need to dispose of nail polish at an appropriate waste facility. What better indication do we need that most nail polish is toxic? And, because the bottles themselves are also contaminated, you can’t just decant all your old polish into one container and recycle the glass bottles. Instead, you’ll need to take the polish and bottle together to a designated facility to be properly disposed of by professionals in waste management.

In the US, you can search here for a place to dispose of hazardous waste. Before you head out with a couple of bottles of polish, though, consider asking around friends, family, and co-workers to see if you can do a group run to cut down on mileage and help raise awareness of what’s in most nail polish. 

If you want to find out more about the toxic chemicals in those jars of gloop, check out the toxic chemicals to watch out for in nail polish. If you just want to skip ahead to the recommendations, here’s the best options for eco-friendly glitter and glitter nail polish.

Free eBook: Simple Steps to a Greener Home

Concerned about climate change? Learn actionable tips for making each room in your home greener.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Leave a Reply

If you have a question about the subject matter of this post, ask it in the comments below. To better serve our readers, we have started answering some reader questions in dedicated blog posts.

Back to top