The Best Alternative to "X-Free" Nail Polish (2023)

The Best Alternative to "X-Free" Nail Polish (1)Share on Pinterest

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Scanning the ingredients list of things you plan to put into your body might be second nature at the grocery store. You might even peruse the labels on skin care products before you click “add to cart.”

But what about the products you’re using for your nails? Does your favorite coral polish or that oh-so stylish gel nail design come with hidden health risks? And if so, how serious are we talking?

In an effort to better understand the potential risks of nail polish, and whether formulas that are marketed as “X-free” are really any better, we looked at the latest research and spoke with industry experts.

Whether you decide the pay-off is worth the risk, starting from a place of knowledge is always a good idea. Read on for the truth about non-toxic nail polish, plus the very best alternative for put-together nails.

We may look at our fingernails as sturdy little things, and they are — to a degree. Nails are made of keratin, a protective, but not impermeable, protein.

“People need to understand that the nail plate is porous, not hard,” says Mary Lennon, the co-founder of Côte. “That means anything you paint onto your nails will soak into your bloodstream and can affect you.”

Even more permeable is the skin around your nails. And then there are the fumes you inhale every time you step into a nail salon or bust out your own polishes and removers.

Add it all up, and it’s clear that the ingredients in your nail polish (and nail polish removers) are absolutely making their way into your body.

What exactly those ingredients are — and whether they’re safe — is another story entirely.

The landscape of nail polish can be challenging to navigate at best.

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Let’s be clear that “nail polish is essentially paint,” says Suzanne Shade, the founder of Bare Hands, a polish-free method of natural nail care.

“If you think of it in terms of household waste, all paints (liquid or dried) are classified as toxic substances and cannot be safely put in public landfills — regardless of being labeled ‘non-toxic,’” Shade continues.

And for the record, while many nail polish manufacturers tend to keep their formulas top secret, the ingredients in just about every bottle of polish can be broadly categorized into:

  • solvents
  • resins
  • plasticizers
  • film-forming agents
  • coloring agents

Then there are the issues of labeling and marketing claims.

“Nail polish formulation is tricky, and, sometimes, the packaging or marketing around a formula can be misleading,” says Olivia Van Iderstine, the vice president of content and creative at Olive & June.

Worse, vague references to being “clean,” “non-toxic,” or free of 3, 5, 7, 10, or even 15 worrisome ingredients are largely unregulated. This means nail polish companies are essentially free to say what they want.

Additionally, it’s important to know that neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) approves nail polishes before they come to market.

The only exception that requires FDA approval is color additives. Otherwise, manufacturers can use any ingredient as long as:

  • The product is safe when used as labeled. However, it’s up to manufacturers to determine whether their products are safe. The FDA doesn’t require any particular safety testing.
  • The product is labeled appropriately. This includes having ingredient labels on polishes sold to consumers. However, polishes available in nail salons only aren’t required to have ingredient lists.
  • The ingredients are used appropriately. That means the way the ingredients are used don’t cause the finished product to be “adulterated or misbranded” according to the laws the FDA enforces.

Still, if you have a hard time pronouncing the ingredients on your polish, let alone understanding what they are, you aren’t the only one.

“Even those who take the time to research products and their ingredients may not be able to find what is actually in the bottle they are researching,” explains Autumn Blum, a cosmetic chemist and the formulator and CEO of Stream2Sea, a personal care company committed to eco-friendly products.

That’s because some ingredients, like phthalates, can be hidden under catch-all terms like “fragrance” in the interest of protecting trade secrets.

“Certain ingredients, like ‘fragrance,’ can hide up to 3,000 different chemicals under that label, many of which are questionable for humans and can be lethal for aquatic life,” Blum says.

The upshot? The nail polish industry has very little regulation or enforcement. That means it all comes down to conscientiousness on the part of the consumer.

Now that you’re side-eyeing your manicure, let’s talk about the world of “3-Free” polishes.

Roughly 15 years ago, manufacturers launched splashy campaigns promoting the fact that they were no longer using three specific solvents and plasticizers in their formulas:

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So, the fact that 3-Free nail polish is free of these chemicals makes it healthier, right? Not necessarily.

3-Free doesn’t mean toxin-free

In many cases, toluene, formaldehyde, and DBP were swapped for chemicals that, at best, aren’t particularly well studied at this point, and at worst, aren’t much of an improvement.

“The challenge is that none of the ‘swaps’ for plasticizers or binding agents have been studied,” Shade says. “So, unfortunately, a lot of folks assume a certain level of safety that just hasn’t yet been proven.”

Triphenyl phosphate

Instead of DBP, some nail polish formulas began using triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), which is a suspected endocrine-disrupting plasticizer.

A small 2015 study of 26 women who had recently painted their nails found evidence of TPHP in their urine, leading researchers to conclude that nail polish could be a significant source of short-term and chronic TPHP exposure, depending on how often people are getting their nails done.

Fun fact: It’s also used as a flame retardant.


Another common ingredient in many formulas on the shelves of nail salons and stores today, including many “X-Free” options, is benzophenone-1. According to Blum, that’s pretty concerning.

“Benzophenone is classified as a known toxicant by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). It’s a known endocrine disruptor and allergen.”

Blum explains that benzophenone-3 is also known as oxybenzone. Yes, it’s the very ingredient “currently under mass scrutiny within the chemical sunscreen industry,” Blum says.

Not only has it shown to harm coral larvae, which is the issue in the sunscreen world, but Blum says the chemical has also been associated with:

  • endometriosis
  • Hirschsprung’s disease
  • blocking testosterone and sperm development
  • increasing estrogen in mammals

“It does a fantastic job preventing color from fading, but is certainly not worth the health and environmental impact in my opinion,” Blum says.

Of course, not every nail polish company is doing things the same way. In fact, some manufacturers have taken the “X-free” movement even further.

Over the last decade and change, it’s snowballed from three to five to seven to ten or more ingredients willfully being excluded for health and safety considerations.


Olive & June

Olive & June is one company with a laser focus on safety.

“Beautiful nails that won’t chip are important, but not at the cost of your health and safety,” Van Iderstine says. “Some of the ingredients we excluded are considered carcinogenic, while others can cause severe irritation, or worse.”

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Instead of tweaking existing formulas, the company essentially started over.

“When we set out to make our polish, we weren’t interested in using an existing formula and putting a fancy new label on it,” says Van Iderstine. “We spent almost 2 years developing Olive & June polish, and it was worth every reformulation.”

Safety note

Keep in mind that even with brands holding their formulations to the most rigorous standards, there are still a lot of unknowns.

“It’s still a reality that none of the current swaps for the most harmful ingredients have been tested for safety,” Blum says, “so we really don’t know to what extent they are toxic either. Unfortunately, that leaves us with more questions than answers.”

Bare Hands Dry Gloss Manicure

If you’re wary of using any kind of polish on your nails, you aren’t alone.

But forgoing the polish doesn’t mean giving up on pretty, put-together nails. The Dry Gloss Manicure — a natural nail care protocol that supports the health of the nails and skin — is gaining traction, and it’s not hard to see why.

Simple tools, like The Polisher and ultra-rich cuticle oil, are designed to leave a glossy nail and hydrated cuticles for a chic effect.

Aesthetics entirely aside, there’s a huge benefit to naked nails: The fingernail has been called a window to health, and it’s true.

Nail condition can offer insight into all kinds of changes to your health. When you’re the back-to-back-to-back manicure type, and your natural nails haven’t seen the light of days for months or worse, years, you may be missing a key indicator of your own health.


No one is saying you need to give up nail polish forever. Like many things, much of it comes down to minimizing risk and following a few best practices.

If you still like the idea of painting your nails, here are a few tips to stay as safe as possible.

Make a point of reading ingredients

But don’t stop there — look them up! The Environmental Working Group maintains a robust database, and it’s quick and easy to plug in an ingredient or specific polish for a rundown on any concerns. That’s really the best way to avoid the most harmful ingredients.

Remember, “the front of the package can be, and often is, misleading, but the ingredients can tell a very different story,” Blum says.

Be mindful of marketing copy

Many nail polish brands are careful to avoid buzzy, but largely meaningless, language like “clean” and “natural” without backing up exactly what they mean. In some cases, it’s actually more common for the media to use those labels in describing certain brands.

Brands promoting their “Free” formulations tend to be very upfront about what they’re excluding and why, so take the time to read about it.

Take breaks

Nails don’t actually need to “breathe,” but taking breaks from manicures and polish is still recommended.

Ingredients in even the best formulas, along with some of the more involved processes (think gel and dip manicures) can dry out the keratin layers in your nails, making way for problems, like brittleness, thinning, peeling, and even irreversible damage to the tissue in the nail bed and the surrounding cuticles.

A good rule of thumb is to go bare for at least a week every 2 months.

Choose with care

Look for brands that are transparent about their formulations and approaches.

The takeaway

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It’s easy to assume that anything we can buy has been vetted for safety. But that ballet slipper-pink polish may not be as innocent as you think. At this point, we just don’t know.

Make a point of looking past “X-Free” promises to what’s really in a polish, and consider reframing your idea of “done” nails. You might find a glossy natural look as put-together as polish, without the potential health risks.


What nail polish resists chipping the best? ›

  1. Sally Hansen Miracle Gel. Wear: 7 days with minimal chipping. ...
  2. Cnd Vinylux Weekly Polish. Wear: 7 to 8 days. ...
  3. Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab Pro Nail Color. ...
  4. Essie Gel Couture. ...
  5. Zoya Nail Lacquer. ...
  6. Olive & June 7-free Nail Polish. ...
  7. Dior Vernis Gel Shine & Long Wear Nail Lacquer. ...
  8. Smith & Cult Nail Lacquer.
30 Apr 2020

How did Cleopatra do her nails? ›

Cleopatra's Egypt

She used to color her nails (blood red) with plant extracts. Rather than the entire hand, she only used to paint the nails.

What is least damaging to nails? ›

Go to a salon that uses an LED curing light rather than a UV curing light. Gel nails require ultraviolet (UV) light to harden. LED emits lower levels of UV radiation than a UV curing light. An LED light also cures more quickly, which reduces your UV exposure.

What nail polish has no chemicals in it? ›

Iconic nail brand Smith & Cult boasts impressive 8-free polishes, which are free of all chemical nasties. This is one of the most luxurious non-toxic nail brands available. Smith & Cult polishes are also vegan, cruelty-free, paraben-free, and gluten-free.

Does nail polish weaken nails? ›

That being said, harsh ingredients such as toluene, formaldehyde and DBP in some nail polish formulas can cause your nails to become weak, which can turn your nails from long and strong to dry and prone to breakage. But there are some situations that might require a break from nail polish.

Why do my painted nails chip so easily? ›

You're applying thick layers of polish

If you are applying nail polish in thick layers, you are not allowing it to dry on to the nail properly. Half-dried polish will chip faster. If your first layer is streaky, you can always cover it up in the second layer.

What to put on nails to keep polish from chipping? ›

She recommends applying cuticle oil to your nails and cuticles every other day. "This will restore moisture and also help prevent chipping and splitting," she says.

What gender was nail polish originally for? ›

Ironically, although polished nails—from intricate designs to simple one- shade manicures—have long been seen as feminine, nail polish has actually been around since 3200 BCE, and back then, it was used by men.

What was the first nail polish color? ›

The invention of the car spurred the creation of the first modern-day nail polish. Inspired by automobile paint, a completely colorless version was introduced in 1916. Revlon became the first established nail polish brand in 1932 when they released a cream color. 3.

How did ancient humans keep their nails short? ›

Before the invention of the modern nail clipper, people would use small knives to trim or pare their nails. Descriptions of nail trimming in literature date as far back as the 8th century BC.

Are nails healthier without polish? ›

Your Nails Will Get Stronger

Nails are made of layers of keratin, similar to hair, and although fingernails don't actually need to breathe, the strong solvents in polish remover dry out the nail and surrounding cuticle, says Dana Stern, a dermatologist and nail specialist in New York City.

Do nails get stronger without polish? ›

Take breaks between manicures.

“Constant use of polish, even non-toxic polish, can weaken the nail,” says Dr. Solomon. If you find that your nails have become especially fragile (and they're painted more often than not), give them a month off from nail polish to allow them to grow and strengthen.

Is it better to wear nail polish or not? ›

Nails receive their nutrients and oxygen through your blood. While wearing nail polish all the time won't stop your nails from growing, it does damage your nail integrity. Even with blood supply, nails do still need air to “breathe”. That's why a break from nail polish every few weeks is a must.

What are 3 things you should not do to your nails? ›

To prevent nail damage, don't:
  • Bite your fingernails or pick at your cuticles. These habits can damage the nail bed. ...
  • Pull off hangnails. You might rip live tissue along with the hangnail. ...
  • Use harsh nail care products. Limit your use of nail polish remover. ...
  • Ignore problems.

Do gel nails ruin your nails? ›

Although gel manicures can be beautiful and long-lasting, they can be tough on nails. Gel manicures can cause nail brittleness, peeling and cracking, and repeated use can increase the risk for skin cancer and premature skin aging on the hands.

Why you shouldn't do your nails? ›

Regular manicures can weaken your nails.

Over time, this can weaken nails. Acetone dries out keratin, the rigid protein your nails are made of. Dry keratin tends to peel, become brittle, and ultimately break.

How do you get toxic free nail polish? ›

  1. Mix the olive oil with the colour choice (mica) in a small pot under low heat. Pour into a bowl and strain the olive oil back into the pot.
  2. Add in the beeswax and stir for a minute. Also, add in jojoba oil and vitamin E oil. Blend thoroughly. ...
  3. To use again, place the small jar in a pan of warm water to reheat.
22 May 2020

What are the most toxic ingredients in nail polish? ›

There are three main culprits found in many nail polishes: formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). These chemicals are known as the "Toxic Trio" or "Big 3".

How toxic is OPI nail polish? ›

*Original information: OPI Nail Polish boasts about not having the toxic trio (toluene, formaldehyde, and DPB) but, it has other ingredients that aren't the greatest: camphor, which can cause nausea and dizziness if inhaled, and Benzophenone 1, which may negatively affect the endocrine system.

How long should you give your nails a break from nail polish? ›

The average time for your natural nail to grow out completely from the cuticle to the tip of the nail can take anywhere from four to six months. This is a long time to refrain from manicures or using polish, so we recommend taking a three to four week break between nail appointments.

Is it unhealthy to always wear nail polish? ›

"Leaving your nail polish on for too long can dry out the nails, leaving them brittle," says Dr. Curry. "Thin, brittle nails pose a health hazard because the nail is a barrier to keep out bacteria and fungus."

How often should you polish your nails? ›

You should change a gel polish at least every three weeks, while acrylics can last 2 months.

What are the white spots on my nails after removing polish? ›

Your nail has become dehydrated and the white spots you see are actually called Keratin Granulations. Nail polish can contain harsh chemicals such as acetone, which can dry out your nails leading to this appearance when your nail polish comes off.

Why do my toenails turn white after wearing nail polish? ›

Keratin granulation

If you remove your nail polish only to find that part of your nail is white and dry underneath, you may have this common condition. It's caused by wearing toenail polish for too long. If you have this, it's best to let your nails heal for a while.

Is gel nail polish worse than regular? ›

With light wear, your gel nails last at least twice as long as a normal polish, but realistically they get you four to six times a standard manicure mileage. In terms of wear and tear, gel polish will not chip the way regular polish is known to. If applied correctly, it is also not likely to smudge.

What do salons use to make nail polish last longer? ›

Apply Thinner Coats

There's a reason nail salons often add a drop of acetone to a bottle of nail polish: it makes polish easier to apply and (counter-intuitively) helps manicures to last longer. That's because the thinner consistency is less likely to clump up and lift off of the nail.

What is the nail polish that lasts 3 weeks? ›

Gel polishes are chip- and even scratch-resistant (to normal activity), and they stay super glossy even 3 weeks after initial application!

Does vinegar help nail polish last longer? ›

You can make your nail polish last longer with vinegar. Simply soak your fingernails for one minute in ½ cup of warm water and two teaspoons of vinegar, either apple cider vinegar or white vinegar will do the trick. Wait for you nails to dry. Paint them as usual.

Why does my nail polish peel off after one day? ›

If your nails have too much moisture or oil on them, the polish peels off much sooner than it should. To prevent this, you can try cleaning your nails with alcohol pads or nail polish remover before applying the polish. You can also try applying a base coat or buffing your nails first.

Why does my nail polish chip after 1 day? ›

Your nails are dry

We're talking dry in the brittle, flaky sense. If the surface of your nail is prone to chipping and breaking, your polish will be too—no matter how strong the bond. How to fix it: "Take care of nails and skin by applying a thick, rich lotion at least once a day and preferably at night," says Viviano.

Why does my gel polish peel off so quickly? ›

The gel top coat usually peels off if it isn't cured properly or has been applied over a colour gel or acrylic nails that have been wiped down with isopropyl alcohol. Each layer of gel is sticky and bonds to the next one, so if the tacky layer is removed, the next layer of polish will not adhere and will peel off.

How do you paint your nails so they don't chip? ›

Apply a top coat.

Then, once that is dry, cover the whole nail in top coat. This will give the tip of your nails more strength over the life of your manicure. Apply a few layers of top coat if you have the time to do it. The top coat should leave a nice, smooth finish that will resist chips and snags.

Why does my gel nail polish crack after a few days? ›

If your structure is too flat, you'll get cracking, generally in the stress zone and sidewall area. Always blend your product flush into the nail at the cuticle, and have most of the product over the stress area, thinning toward the free edge (think almonds). Another problem is over-filing.

Why do girls paint their toenails blue? ›

Essentially it means you're in a relationship. According to Urban Dictionary girls use it to indicate they're no longer available. They say: “When a girl gets blue nails it typically means she has a significant other or/ aka, a boyfriend. Females use this colour to let other people know she is no longer available.”

What does it mean when a guy tells you to get dark blue nails? ›

Related videos. Basically, if you've got blue nails, it means that you have a boyfriend, or you're taken. There's also a theory that when girls ask their boyfriends what colour they should get their nails done, they will apparently always say "light blue" or "baby blue".

What does it mean if a guy wears black nail polish? ›

It can mean different things to different people, but generally, this color is said to symbolize strength, confidence, power. These are traditionally seen as “masculine'' traits, so it is not surprising that men choose to wear this color.

What color nail polish looks good on older hands? ›

If you have a lighter skin tone, the color would differ depending on how fair your skin is, but corals, greens, and red would be good for older hands because it draws attention to the nails. If you have darker toned skin, choose shades of orange, gold, and grey.

How did people paint their nails before nail polish? ›

Early polish was apparently made from a mixture that included beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, vegetable dyes, and gum Arabic. In Egypt, members of high society painted their nails a reddish brown, using henna. In the ninth century, nails were tinted with scented oils, and polished or buffed.

What does black nail polish mean on a girl? ›

Black nail polish can symbolize different things. It represents confidence, it is mysterious and daring. People may also see it as an expression of their individuality.

How did cavemen deal with ingrown toenails? ›

They could theoretically have used a flint edge to trim them, or a rough stone to file them down.

How did Indians cut toenails? ›

If their nails did need trimming, I suppose they either bit them off or trimmed them with a small, sharp stone tool. As for abscessed teeth, Native Americans had all sorts of herbal remedies that probably varied depending on the local flora.

How did early humans trim their toenails? ›

Chances are that prehistoric people didn't need to cut their toenails: while they were walking around barefooted, their nails would have been naturally abraded by contact with the ground. This is why toenails continue growing throughout our lives.

Is there such thing as safe nail polish? ›

Many nontoxic nail polishes are now going further, though, to eliminate others like formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, xylene, and TPHP. When a formula doesn't contain those additives, that's when you'll see 5-, 7-, 9-, or 10-free written on the label.

Is there such a thing as non toxic nail polish? ›

Some nontoxic nail polishes are 5-free, indicating they do not contain formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate, plus formaldehyde resin and camphor.

Is it OK to wear nail polish all the time? ›

While wearing nail polish all the time won't stop your nails from growing, it does damage your nail integrity. Even with blood supply, nails do still need air to “breathe”. That's why a break from nail polish every few weeks is a must. For keratin granulation, 3 to 4 weeks will be enough time to give your nails a rest.

Why do hospitals not allow nail polish? ›

The use of nail polish, as well as the wearing of artificial nails and other nail adornments, is strictly banned in the majority of healthcare facilities. This is because nail polish and acrylics can chip off, and long nails, whether natural or artificial tips, could be harboring germs beneath.

Does wearing nail polish weaken nails? ›

That being said, harsh ingredients such as toluene, formaldehyde and DBP in some nail polish formulas can cause your nails to become weak, which can turn your nails from long and strong to dry and prone to breakage.

What is the white stuff on my toenails after removing nail polish? ›

If after removing your toenail polish, you see these white chalky patches then in most cases it is a condition called keratin granulation. These occur from constant polish wearing. This is not a fungus but can look much like it and can trigger a fungus so it is important to treat it.

When should I stop using nail polish? ›

“I always recommend to my patients that it's best to leave polish on for a few weeks on, and then remove the polish and go without for a few weeks,” Dr. Rowland says. “It's not a good idea to leave nail polish continuously on your toes all summer. They need a break.”

Is Sally Hansen nail polish good quality? ›

Is Sally Hansen's nail polish good quality? Yes. Sally Hansen's nail polishes contain high-quality ingredients that last long and are chip-resistant.

Does OPI infinite shine damage nails? ›

After one week the shine was still very much. I do have to say that I'm not a fan of gel nails in general, as in my experience it does damage your nails ,including the whole getting it off process, and after wearing gel nails for a while, I find my nails to be in poor condition.

Is all OPI nail polish formaldehyde free? ›

OPI is proud to be a 3-Free brand, meaning our lacquers do not contain Formaldehyde, DBP or Toluene. We have been 3-Free since 2006 and will continue to provide our customers with the best quality and safest products.


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