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What is 3-Free Nail Polish?  Does it Matter?

What is 3-Free Nail Polish? Does it Matter?


By semick

If you’ve ever looked at a polish label, you’ve likely seen the term “3-free.” But what does it really mean and does it make a difference?

Dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde: These three chemicals, once commonly found in nail polish, have gotten a bad rap since 2004 when the European Union banned them from use in cosmetics due to their suspected health risks. Then, in 2006, after feeling the heat from health groups and shoppers, a handful of American brands, including lacquer leaders OPI and Essie, also removed the “toxic trio” from their formulas. Dozens of other U.S. polish manufacturers—like Zoya, Butter London and Sally Hansen—followed suit, thus breathing life into the 3-Free Movement. But, has it made much of a difference in our manis’ wear and tear… or our health?

What exactly does “three-free” mean? Quite simply, it’s the removal of three ingredients from nail lacquer: toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate. Easy enough. But let’s take a closer look at what these three chemicals are and why they’ve long been a part of the polish formula.

Toluene. A clear liquid substance, toluene is typically included in polishes to make sure that the lacquer applies smoothly and clump-free. “It’s also used to make many types of household products, including paint, cleaners, coatings, inks and adhesives,” says Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and the founder of

Formaldehyde. Nail polish contains an ingredient that often gets stigmatized for its name, as it sounds a lot like formaldehyde: tosylmide/formaldehyde resin. Formaldehyde itself is actually a gas. The resin found in lacquer is indeed manufactured from formaldehyde; however, once the product becomes a resin, the formaldehyde is chemically changed and is, therefore, no longer present. Most nail hardeners, though, do contain formaldehyde (formalin), but the levels are well below those set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Formaldehyde also works as a preservative in many household products like plastics, adhesives and cleaners,” says Robinson.

Dibutyl phthalate. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) helps prevent one of the most cringe-worthy manicure occurrences—chipping! “DBP is a plastisizer that softens synthetic polymers by reducing brittleness and cracking, thus helping to maintain the consistency of polish during application and then keeping dried polish from cracking,” says Suzanne Denero, manicurist and national sales director for Zoya. Outside of nail polish, the chemical makes plastics like shower curtains and rain boots super-flexible, and can be found in food packaging, medical devices and toys.

Nail polish is a glorious thing—we can all agree on that. But one factor some lacquer lovers haven’t reached a consensus about is whether or not the ingredients that make up the contents of those coveted bottles are safe to use on a regular basis. Backers of the ban cite a myriad of health concerns. “These chemicals can cause eye irritation and dizziness, and are linked to cancer, asthma and birth defects,” says Dan Werner, director of laboratories at Orly. But the Nail Manufacturers Council (NMC) of the Professional Beauty Association (PBA) argues, “nail polish comes in small bottles, with tiny openings, that release very little of the product into the environment.” Furthermore, several federal agencies regulate that product, including the FDA, Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—and nail lacquer meets all legal requirements.

The most vocal supporters of the three-free movement cite the exposure to chemical molecules, regardless of the amount, as dangerous. “The concern stems from the fact that these chemicals are known hazardous chemicals and solvents,” says Julia Liou, co-founder of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. And Liou is correct: Formaldehyde, toluene and DBP are all included on California’s Proposition 65 list of toxic chemicals. (Proposition 65, also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, requires the state to publish a list, updated at least once a year, of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.) Of course, other ingredients on that list might surprise you: aspirin, vitamin A, alcoholic beverages and gasoline, all products that many people come in contact with on a regular basis. Aspirin, for example, in the proper dosage can ease headaches and is a benefit to heart health. However, too much of it can cause developmental harm. Likewise, seemingly innocuous water, when breathed in as humidity, is harmless. But breathe in a cupful of it, and you’ll drown. It all boils down to the amount. “Even if one were able to absorb five bottles of nail polish every day for a lifetime,” says the NMC, “that amount would still be below the no-effect level for DBP in laboratory experiments. There is an old adage that continues to ring true: ‘The dose makes the poison.’”

Maybe. Makeup market researcher Kline Group points out that the growth rate for natural cosmetics continues to outshine other categories worldwide. Nutrition Business Journal estimates that U.S. consumer sales of natural and organic personal care products reached $8.7 billion in 2011, a 7 percent growth over 2010. To gain even more perspective: In 2001, sales of natural cosmetics were just $3.5 billion—proving that in just 10 short years, the industry has nearly tripled its sales. In short, when faced with the choice between a product that’s labeled “natural” versus one that features a laundry list of chemicals, consumers are increasingly choosing the former. Claiming three-free can mean big business for a brand.

Whether three-free is a marketing ploy or not, as the end consumer, you still desire a polish that performs. This begs the question: Can a lacquer devoid of chemicals that make it go on smoother and delay chipping be any good? Some polish manufacturers think so. Werner believes that “esthetically speaking, there is no difference [between three-free polish and regular polish].”

While three-free polish may be devoid of a few chemicals, it’s still infused with others. “Nail polish is generally safe and non-toxic when used as directed; don’t inhale it, don’t bite your nails, don’t ingest it,” says Robinson, who isn’t convinced that three-free polish works as well as traditional polish. “These new three-free formulas can take longer to dry, chip faster, not come in as many trendy shades and colors, and can separate after long periods of storage.”

The NMC also questions the notion that natural or organic products are safer. “Most ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ substitutes are too new to have been subjected to long-term testing—unlike the well-known ‘chemical’ ingredients, which have been thoroughly tested and safely used for decades,” the organization states. Let’s not forget that all-natural ingredients can cause allergic reactions, too. One study in the British Journal of Dermatology found that popular natural ingredients including tea tree oil, feverfew, lavender and jasmine caused an allergic reaction or sensitivity in some people.

One would think that the more chemicals we remove from nail polish, the closer we are to a completely natural lacquer. But, that’s simply not the case. Since so many factors are involved in making the perfect polish formula—color, consistency and how it looks and feels wet and dry—it’s tougher to create a “green” version than it is to whip up an organic lotion that simply needs to feel good on skin. Several water-based nail polish products have made names for themselves on store shelves (i.e. Acquarella and Suncoat), but they still have leaps and bounds to go before they wear and perform like a traditional polish.

When used as directed, traditional nail polish is perfectly safe. “There really shouldn’t be too much cause for concern,” assures Nikita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist at Englewood Lab in New Jersey. “Nail biters should maybe try to avoid nail polish because it’s not meant to be ingested, but that’s more of a common sense thing.” And before you cancel your next mani/pedi appointment, consider this: The U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) limits the average exposure to toluene in an eight-hour period to 200 parts per million (ppm), and up to 500 ppm on a short-term basis. According to the NMC, California authorities found that exposure for nail professionals in a salon averages less than 1 ppm—which means your exposure is practically nil. So, whether you seek a three-free varnish or a traditional polish, feel free to pick your colors with ease, knowing that no matter how you lacquer up, your health won’t be compromised.

-Ayren Jackson-Cannady

Image: FreeImages via dorotac