If you care about your nail health, you're going to want to lose the drugstore nail polishes and the brands found in your average nail salon. Particularly if toxins are a concern, you're going to want to consider using 5-free (or more) nail polishes.
These polishes are popular among the "I only buy organic but I love my painted nails" set because of what they don't contain. Specifically, they don't contain formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and the allergens camphor and formaldehyde resin. Look at the ingredients of any bottle of drugstore polish, and you'll likely see all five listed, but if you're willing to drop a bit extra (5-free polishes run from $9 on up to Chanel's luxurious $28 bottles) you can be assured you are primping your hands and feet with the safest polish possible. In fact, some polishes go so far as to be more than 5-free, removing even up to nine or 10 potentially-dangerous ingredients.
How Dangerous Are These Toxins?
Some people think because the polish sits atop the nails, that it shouldn't matter what you put on them. But that's not true, as it turns out that our nails are actually quite porous.
These ingredients come with all sorts of dire warnings if you research them. Formaldehyde can cause cancer (but only if you use loads of it over a long period of time—think people who straighten hair with it for a living), while Dibutyl phthalate is bad for the reproductive system, and toluene can be harmful to unborn fetuses. Some of these ingredients are only bad for you if ingested, but it's not like people don't bite their nails. That said, the real risks involved as pertaining to the average individual who paints their nails and for their aesthetician are admittedly still up for debate.
Nail polish in Europe is much more regulated than those made and sold in the United States. All nail polishes must at least be 3-free at the time of this writing. So—better safe than sorry? It's up to you to decide.
The Difference Between 3-Free and 5-Free
Many nail polish brands, including the nail salon favorites Essie and OPI, are 3-free, meaning they don't contain possibly toxic ingredients. But 5-free polishes go even further and exclude camphor and formaldehyde resin from their products. These are known allergens, and affect a (likely small) percentage of people, who up until now, could never polish their nails.
What does this mean for those of us not allergic to these products? Well, it probably means you'll mostly be safe with 3-free products.
What's So Bad About These Added Two Ingredients?
Formaldehyde resin is a nail hardener that can cause contact dermatitis in those with allergies. As for camphor, it can cause problems when inhaled in large doses. While that might not be that bad for you unless you're allergic or like to change up your polish daily, it can be hazardous to people who paint toes and fingers for a living.
For a year or more I kept a bottle of RGB Haze in a little drawer at my local nail salon. I loved the dark brown because it reminded me of my beloved You Don't Know Jacques from OPI, but it was 5-free. In fact, I preferred the RGB shade to the OPI one. I kept the bottle for convenience sake and my dear friend Olga loved the color so much she used it at her salon visits, too.
RGB is great. And that $18 bottle of polish will last you (and a friend!) more than a year even if you get pedicures once every week or two.
Chanel is a name synonymous with pure luxury, and their nail polishes are no different. This is down to even the shades—which are divine and always seasonally appropriate. Coming across a line of Chanel polishes makes it almost difficult not to buy them all up. You never know when you might need that perfect shade for a beach weekend.
Jin Soon, $18
Jin Soon Choi is a celebrity manicurist and famous nail artist, world-renowned for her nail advice and services. Naturally, her nail polish collection, which debuted in 2012, is as fabulous as she is. Every single one of her formulas is actually 9 or 10 free, so you'll not only get the best products available, you'll get the safest too.
Butter London, $15
Another brand that didn't stop at 5-free, cult nail brand Butter London is actually 7-free. The extra two ingredients left out by Butter are xylene and ethyl tosylamide.
For some reason, the brand is absolutely beloved by some and absolutely abhorred by others. It might be a good idea to try it out using a tester bottle, or at your local nail salon where a pro can do it justice.
Deborah Lippmann, $18
If you want a great nail polish that won't chip immediately but dries fast and lasts a long time, you can't beat Deborah Lippmann. The glossy-finish polish is even blended with 10 active ingredients to promote nail health.
Not to mention, the brand has a wonderful selection of colors, all named after songs. Lippman, after all, is not just a nail guru—she's a singer, too.
Smith & Cult, $18
Dineh Mohajer, the creator of Hard Candy, is the founder of this nail-and-makeup brand that constantly receives rave reviews from beauty bloggers and regular people alike. The colors, which are all pretty unique, last incredibly long and don't subject you to any of the chipping you might expect.
Founded by Amy Lin on the basis of self-care and wellness, Sundays is all about the experience. Try this oceanic shade with a bottle shape and brush optimized for precise and quick application and a formula that's cruelty-free, 10-free, and vegan.
Tenoverten is a Manhattan nail salon that became so popular they created their own line of 8-free nail polishes that are beloved by the Soho set. If you're in Manhattan, you might want to stop by the salon, too—it's both luxe and laid back.
You've probably seen their bottles but might not have known that Zoya is a 5-free nail company. They won the award as the longest wearing natural nail polish by an independent panel in Women’s Health Magazine, and you'll find it in many salons that boast their commitment to non-toxic polishes. Not to mention, there are over 400 gorgeous nail polish shades to choose from.
Olive & June, $8
Olive & June is an LA-based nail salon just starting to make waves in the nail-care industry. Their nail polishes are 7-free, and their salon itself is so beloved its constantly booked up. They have less than 10 shades out right now, but we're firm believers in quality over quantity.
Luxury without pretense is how you should think of Côte, a nail salon that caters to individuals who want their beauty products both cruelty-free and free of the five major toxins, plus five more. The bottles are only $18, and there are more than 100 shades to choose from.