Photo of five Terra nail polishes

Is nontoxic nail polish really nontoxic (& does it actually work)?

Last Updated: June 2, 2021

All nail polishes are not made equal. We've done the research and gathered the info from real users to see if nontoxic nail polish is best.

Your bubblegum pink nail polish isn’t as innocent as it looks.

Nontoxic nail polish is the unicorn of the beauty world — everyone’s heard of it but no one has actually seen it. Lots of nail polish companies claim to be nontoxic, but the reality is that all nail polish is toxic to some degree –– it’s just the nature of the beast.

So how do you know when you’ve found the illusive nontoxic lacquer of your dreams? To better understand what companies really mean when they say “nontoxic,” we've done the research and created a handy-dandy guide to learn how nontoxic nail polish works and to help you decide which “nontoxic” nail polish is best for you.

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How toxic is nail polish?

Orange skull and crossbones illustration

Nails are made of keratin, a protein that acts as a (mostly) impenetrable fortress against intruders — aka the majority of things that get on your nails aren’t going to be absorbed into your body, thanks to the tough keratin tissue. But while keratin is strong, it isn’t 100% impermeable — and the skin around your nails is more than capable of soaking in any toxins that your nails protect against.

Enter nail polish. The chemicals in nail polish are definitely getting absorbed through your cuticles and the surrounding skin. There are even polish ingredients that weaken the keratin, making that impenetrable fortress more likely to absorb the nasty toxins in your favorite lacquer.

The danger doesn’t stop there — as nail polish dries, you breathe in the toxic fumes that off-gas into the air. Yikes!

What is the healthiest nail polish?

The healthiest nail polish you can get — or rather, the least toxic nail polish you can get — is one with the fewest toxic ingredients. But how do you know?

It’s actually pretty easy! Nail polish brands that keep certain toxic ingredients out of their polish call them “#”-free.

  • So a 3-free nail polish is one without the three worst offenders.
  • A 5-free polish is missing those same three worst ingredients, along with the next two most toxic ingredients
  • 7-free polishes nix those five plus two more

But do nail polishes without these chemicals actually stay on without chipping? We found real people who’ve tried up to 10-free polishes and here’s what one said about Terra Beauty Bar’s nontoxic nail polish:

“I don't paint my finger nails often because they usually chip within a few days and I am too lazy to remove the remainder so they start to look very questionable quickly. But, I did my toes with this color and I loved it, so I painted my finger nails. I have had the same coat on for about 10(+) days without a single chip! It is *starting* to wear down along some edges so I will probably touch them up again soon, but I'm seriously impressed. I also ordered the nail polish remover from this company, LOVE! Not the stinky terrible experience we've become accustomed to with 'traditional' polish remover.”

Now that we’re interested … here’s a rundown of how the whole “-free” system plays out.

3-free: Free of the three worst offenders ...


A solvent to make ingredients stick together and dry quickly, toluene is a known carcinogen with side effects like dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Long-term exposure may cause damage to the central nervous system.


This hardener and preservative is a known carcinogen and may cause skin and respiratory tract infections.

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

DBP prevents chipping and is a known carcinogen and hormone disruptor. It may cause early menopause and reproductive harm in babies.

5-free: Missing the same ingredients as 3-free, plus ...

Formaldehyde resin

Formaldehyde resin gives polishes a glossy coating and may cause skin irritation, among other health issues.


This substance prevents chipping and makes nail polish glossy and shiny. It’s highly toxic — acute and chronic exposure can cause a range of symptoms.

7-free: Missing same ingredients as 5-free, plus ...


A petroleum-based solvent that's a known nervous system and respiratory system toxicant, xylene carries lots of health risks.

Ethyl tosylamide

This plasticizer prevents cracking during application. It mimics antibiotic activity and contributes to antibiotic resistance.

9-free: Missing same ingredients as 7-free, plus ...


You’ve probably heard of these bad boys before. Parabens act as a preservative in nail lacquer and are a suspected endocrine disruptor.


A solvent commonly found in nail polish removers that dissolve polymers and dyes in the polish, acetone dries out nails and makes them brittle. Acetone is a hormone disruptor and can cause neurological and immune problems.

10-free +

Blue bunny illustration

Here’s where things get a little murky. Some 10- through 14-free polishes — and even 16-free polishes — may be missing different harmful ingredients beyond the prescribed nine. These missing marauders include:


Triphenyl phosphate is a plasticizer and fire retardant that sneaks its way into your bloodstream through the nail bed and surrounding skin. TBHP is a hormone disruptor and skin irritant.


Tert-butyl hydroperoxide is a plasticizer that may be toxic to the liver, lungs, blood, and respiratory and nervous systems.


Fragrances are olfactory scoundrels that contain numerous harmful chemicals, including phthalates, which pose serious health risks such as cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption, birth defects, and respiratory problems.


This chemical helps the ingredients in nail polish stick together. Limited evidence shows immune system toxicity and allergic reactions.

Organic halides

Organic halides like Bromine are used as solvents and are associated with ocular, nasal, and respiratory irritation, as well as nerve damage.

Animal-derived ingredients

For vegans and those looking for cruelty-free products, it’s worth noting that many nail polishes contain animal-derived ingredients and ingredients that are tested on animals.

Terra Beauty Bars Nail Polish: A 10-free alternative to conventional polish

Terra Beauty Bars is an innovative brand with a focus on sustainable, plant-based alternatives to common beauty products that are laden with gnarly chemicals. They’ve got a line of vegan and cruelty-free nail care products that are 10-free, including a soy-based nail polish remover plus a gorgeous palette of polishes in all your favorite colors.

Krissy B reviewed the soy-based nail polish remover to let us know if it works as good as the smelly stuff and this is what she said: “I did not think it was possible for nail polish remover to smell good. This smells amazing and works to remove my gel nail polish. What a wonderful find!!!”

Photo of Terra Beauty Bars nail polish

Find Terra Beauty Bars nail polish

Set up your own at-home manicure station and stock it with this fabulous Terra Beauty Bars Nail Polish in al your favorite shades. This natural nail polish is free from ten nasty chemicals found in many of its competitor polishes.

Love Terra Beauty Bars? Pop this Terra Beauty Bars 2 in 1 Top and Base Coat into your cart for the perfect painted nails, or shop Grove member picks such as Terra Beauty Bars Spring Nail Trio and Terra Beauty Bars Essential Nail Set.

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