3 ingredients to avoid in nail polishes?

eyeko nail polishes

EDIT 23/08/2014

When shopping for nail polishes, we often come across the words “formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalates free” printed on the cute little bottles. Commonly used in nail polishes for decades, lately more and more brands are removing them from their products. But why? Are they really bad for you or are the concerns, like it often happens in the world of beauty, exaggerated? Let’s examine them one by one to find out:

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP) is a plasticizer used to make nail polish smoother, easier to apply and to prevent chipping. Concerns about its safety started when DBP was shown to cause birth defects and miscarriages in animal tests. However, no study has been done on humans and, in any case, the amounts of DBP to which rodents were exposed are much higher than those used in nail polish. This doesn’t mean, though, that DBP is safe to be used. The truth is that we don’t know yet how dangerous (or safe) it is for humans. In the meantime, better be safe than sorry.


Formaldehyde is a preservative very used in a wide variety of beauty products, not just nail ones. In nail polishes, it is used in the form of a resin called Tosylamide/Formaldehyde resin which makes them resilient, harder and tough. Formaldehyde can cause irritations but on the eyes (redness and swelling) not on the nails so it’s hard for a lot of people to realise who the culprit really is. In addition, Formaldehyde is carcinogenic but the small amounts used in cosmetics are generally considered to be safe. Tosylamide/Formaldehyde resin is less irritating than formaldehyde and, in the minuscule amounts used in nail polishes, it shouldn’t cause any problems.


Toluene also called Methyl-Methylbenzene or Toluol, is a solvent that makes nail polishes go on smoother so that application is easier. It also makes it adhere better to the nails. However, Toluene can cause contact dermatitis, eye irritation (redness and swelling), sensitization, reproductive toxicity and it is toxic to inhale. In addition, overexposure to this substance can cause problems to the central nervous system, but this is a concern that affects mainly manicurists that work in a place that isn’t well-ventilated. Everyone else can use it safely. Just don’t inhale it.

The Bottom Line

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Formaldehyde and Toluene are all very common allergens and irritants. Lately, serious concerns about their safety have been raised but so far, there is no proof that the small amounts used in nail polishes are harmful to humans. When it comes to DBP, I take the better safe than sorry approach, but I still use the other two ingredients every now and then. Lots of brands formulate their nail polishes without them, so if you’re still concerned about them, you can easily avoid them.

Do you avoid Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Formaldehyde and Toluene in your nail polishes or don’t you care about the potential side effects?

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    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Tanveer, good for you. I’ve never heard of Jordana but I’m glad to hear they are Big 3 free. :)

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Nikki, you’re welcome. That’s good, I think it’s best to avoid these ingredients as much as possible, at least until we get more info on their safety (or lack of). :)

  1. says

    I try to avoid them as much as possible. Most brands I use do not formulate with them. Formaldehyde also causes problem to people who have respiratory issues. It has very low boiling point (30-something degree C), that’s why it is so good for making nps dry faster.
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    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Dao, thanks for sharing, I didn’t know that. Formaldehyde is a really nasty ingredient and I try to avoid it in all products if I can. :)

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Trisha, that’s unbelievable! Why would they do that? Don’t they know that Formaldehyde has a bad reputation and rightly so? With all the cosmetics ingredients available there is no reason to use it, let alone promote it.

  2. Tash says

    I don’t use nail polish full stop! I used to buy the expensive polishes including OPI, but threw them away once learning of these harmful ingredients in them! Tbh, nail polish seems like such a drag, taking the time to put it on, wait for it to dry, hope that it doesn’t chip and then take it off with more chemicals! I don’t see the point when there are toxins in polishes. So I just buff and file :) it leaves them shiny!

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Tash, that’s a bit extreme imo although I understand where you are coming from. Most nail polishes don’t contain these harmful ingredients anymore and they’re safe these days though. But I agree with you that the process of applying and removing nail polishes is so boring!

  3. Chemistry correction says

    Uhh… Benzene and toluene are two different chemicals. They’re both toxic. Benzene is too toxic to be allowed in cosmetics. Toluene usually doesn’t make it into nail polish anymore but sometimes does. I agree it’s to be avoided, but it’s a different chemical from benzene. Benzene is C6H6. Toluene is C7H8.

    Also, the article on this site about tosylamide/formaldehyde resin says it’s mostly safe and doesn’t release much or any formaldehyde. Why the contradiction?

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Chemistry Correction, I know they are too different chemicals and I feel so silly now. I was meant to write Methylbenzene and didn’t realize that I had written that too already. I guess that’s one of those mistakes that are easily overlooked when you rewrite the same sentence a few times. You’re sure you’ve written everything right, but forgot to remove a bit. But thanks for pointing that out, I have fixed it.

      As I stated above, I said that Formaldehyde is a toxic chemical but safe in the small amount used in cosmetics, although lots of people prefer to avoid it and I don’t like using it either. I don’t think it’ll kill me but there are better ingredients around. Tosylamide/formaldehyde resin is a different substance that has different side effects. Again, it won’t kill you, but it’s one of those ingredients that I prefer to avoid when I can.

      • The above chemistry nerd says

        Thank you for clarifying and correcting. Your site seems to have a fairly reasonable/practical approach most of the time about what is and isn’t dangerous, so I feel like it’s important to notice errors, so your articles can maintain credibility and be taken seriously by their intended audience. Cheers!

        • beautifulwithbrains says

          I agree with you and thanks for pointing out any mistakes. I like to evaluate ingredients and their dangers based on scientific studies. Sadly, there are lots of ingredients that get a bad reputation solely because they are synthetic when they are perfectly safe and that’s unfair. I don’t believe that companies put toxic stuff in cosmetics (they just can’t), but every now and then, I come across an ingredient that I’d rather avoid because they can irritate skin (like alcohol denat) or I just think there are better options around (like in the case of formaldehyde resin).

  4. Sugarplum says

    Today I wanted buy a China Glaze nail polish, wich I read is three free, but I read it contains DBP and formaldehyde, but I read in serveral blogs is three free, so….¿¿¿??? Im confused…

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Sugarplum, I believe China Glaze went 3 big free a few years ago, but they still keep using a formaldehyde resin, which is not the same thing as formaldehyde and not as dangerous.

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