Fashion, Not Formaldehyde! Toxin-Free Nail Polish For Every Budget

Written by Madeline Martell
Written by Madeline Martell

Madeline Martell has covered lifestyle topics for AOL, WebMD and the Los Angeles Times and has worked as an advertising copywriter promoting food, flowers, toys and beauty products for clients in both New York and Los Angeles. She loves travel, photography and anything to do with jewelry.


You practice yoga, drink green juice and buy non-GMO snacks. But do you know what’s in your nail polish? If not, you might just be surprised.

The truth is, while no nail polish can be chemical-free, there are five different additives included in some nail polish formulations – substances used for shine, durability, fluidity and more – that have been identified as allergenic, carcinogenic or just plain toxic!

Fortunately, plenty of cosmetic companies have realized it’s possible to make an excellent nail polish without using some or all of these five nasty toxins.

Many of these brands use the terms “3-Free” or “5-Free” to designate which of the chemicals on this list have been left out of their nail polish formulations; but with some luxury brands, it’s much more hush-hush – a hidden benefit that simply isn’t advertised.

Never fear, we’ve done some research for you… just see below!

What are these 5 frightening toxins you can live without?

  • Toluene: (used to give nail polish a smooth finish) is a common solvent used for paint thinner, lacquer, glue and ink. It is also used as a gasoline additive and in jet fuel blends. Inhalation at low levels can cause confusion, light-headedness and nausea; while higher levels of exposure may harm your nervous system.
  • Formaldehyde: (used as a hardener and preservative) is also used in the embalming of dead animals and humans, in the production of particle board and industrial resins and was recently designated as a “known … human carcinogen” by a U.S. government program. It is a skin, eye and respiratory irritant.
  • Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP): (used to increase flexibility and shine) is also used in adhesives and printing inks and is a suspected endocrine disruptor, linked to birth defects in animals. Its use in nail polish is banned in the European Union, and it was permanently banned in 2008 from use in children’s toys in the U.S.
  • Tosylamide/Formaldehyde Resin: while not a known carcinogen, this additive is a potential allergen linked to dermatitis and can off-gas formaldehyde.
  • Camphor: This scented substance can cause nausea, dizziness and headaches.

3-Free nail polish does not contain toluene, formaldehyde or dibutyl phthalate (DBP).

5-Free nail polish goes one step further and is manufactured without toluene, formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), formaldehyde resin and camphor.

Best of all, 3-Free and 5-Free brands are available at every price point; so you can pick and choose how much you want to spend whether you’re shopping at a drugstore, specialty store (such as Sephora) or an upscale department store.

row of nail polish


You love luxury labels, and don't mind spending a bit more:

Chanel (5-Free)
If you’re used to the poshest labels – and don’t mind paying $27/bottle for the cachet of a prestige brand – it’s a bit of an “insider’s secret” that all Chanel nail polishes are actually 5-free. As with everything Chanel, the line is known for classics, especially pale pinks (such as “Ballerina”) and reds in all possible shades, including icons such as “Pirate.” This is not the brand for glitter, but it is for glam.

Dior (5-Free)
Where Chanel goes, so goes Dior – another luxury brand that doesn’t openly tout its toxin-free status (in fact, when I recently stopped in to Sephora in NYC, a Dior makeup artist on-site didn’t even know about it). The Dior Vernis lacquer line claims a super-shiny gel-effect; is 5-free; retails at the same $27 price point as Chanel’s polish; and – as with their lip glosses – specializes in bright and pretty nudes, corals and hot pinks.

You love trendy and unique brands, not just designer labels:

Priti NYC (5-Free)
Priti NYC specializes in “luxury eco-friendly” 5-Free nail polish, made in the USA, in over 150+ subtle and bold colors – including whites and delicate pale pinks – for $15/bottle. The brand also offers 5-free top and base coats and a soy nail polish remover that is non-toxic, non-flammable and without any harmful VOCs, and features an ingredients page on their site that lists each ingredient and explains what it is. Priti NYC is a favorite of designers for their fashion week runway shows and offers 15% off through a nail polish recycling program.

Butter London (7-Free)
If you think British style is all the rage, UK-based brand Butter London claims to be 7-Free (omitting two additional chemicals; xylene and ethyl tosylamide) and features over 100+ trendy, highly-saturated shades including lots of metallics, iridescence and super-pop brights – with sly, Anglo-inflected names such as “Hen Party,” “Snog” and “Sloane Ranger – that retail in the $15-18 range. Butter London also has a long-wearing 7-Free “Patent Shine 10x™” line that yields a super-shiny, gel-style finish and has ingredients to strengthen nails. Best of all, the site features a pop-up chart that let’s you “try on” any color in their current line on photos of models’ hands, depicted in four different skin tones.

Deborah Lippmann (5-Free)
Deborah Lippmann - a celebrity nail artist – offers 5-Free nail polish line that uses no animal testing and features over 70 on-trend, vivid colors, many packed full of sparkling, multi-colored metallic glitter. The line also offers celebrity collaborations such as Lara Stone’s bright coral “Lara’s Theme” and “Stronger,” a “tenacious vivacious violet with glitter” by Kelly Clarkson. The polish is sold at Sephora as well as online, and retails at $18-20/bottle.

Julep (5-Free)
Julep is not only 5-Free but also claims a vegan-friendly formula with “antioxidant green coffee extract” and “oxygen technology” that “allows 30% more oxygen to permeate the nail bed than other nail polish.” The line retails in the $14/bottle range, comes in cute, skinny tubes and specializes in unusual colors (celery green, plum, cornflower) and special effects (glitter, chrome, iridescent). Customers give honest reviews right on the site to help you make a selection.

Acquarella (5-Free)
The Acquarella Water Color brand is grounded in making a polish that’s as non-toxic as possible. This water-based nail polish line includes almost 50 colors and claims not only to be 5-free, but is also odor-free, quick-drying, cruelty-free, includes no petrochemical solvents and sells for $16-18/bottle. The brand’s nail polish remover is fruit- and vegetable-derived and fragrance-free but will not remove any other brand of polish, as it’s designed only for their water-based line. It reputedly can be tricky to apply – be sure to read the directions. Acquarella is also sold on Amazon.

Tenoverten (5-Free)
Tenoverten (named for an upscale nail salon chain in Manhattan) is 5-free, cruelty-free, vegan, made in the USA and offers roughly 30 different colors – all named after streets in Downtown NYC – covering all the basic shades, plus “Lucky Red,” a bright red hue designed by Lucky Magazine. Tenoverten retails for $18/bottle. The brand also offers a 5-Free base coat and top coat.

You want a 3-Free or 5-Free Polish at an affordable price:

Ella + Mila – (5-Free)
Ella + Mila was created specifically to be eco-friendly; is 5-Free, cruelty-free and vegan (with PETA certification); and is made in the USA. The brand – named after one of the founder’s twin daughters – markets to moms who may want to share polish-time with their kids, with “Mommy & Me®” boxed sets featuring a bottle labeled “mommy” with a smaller bottle labeled “me.” The line features over 100 colors on their website, many in bold candy colors. Regular-size bottles retail for $10.50, and kid-size for $7.00.

OPI (3-Free)
OPI – a polish used in many salons – is 3-Free, does not support animal testing, generally retails for under $10 and clearly lists their policies on their site under “OPI Cares." The brand offers an endless number of colors and is known for issuing themed collections with cute names – such as a Hawaii collection with “Go with the Lava Flow” and “Is Mai Tai Crooked?”

So now you can “vote with your wallet” and choose a polish without up to five scary additives, while still achieving glossy, gorgeous painted nails. Why not? It might just be a smart (and cool) thing to do.

Best 3-Free & 5-Free Polishes

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