top of page

Clean Beauty: Nail Polish 101

by Suzanne Wentley

woman with dark lipstick and nail polish

This article includes affiliate links.

When I lived in Vietnam, my nails were always perfectly polished. The manicurists would shape and buff, massage and trim, before applying cute colors and interesting designs. Since I’m all about clean beauty, nail polish always made me feel put-together and stylish.

But there’s an inconvenient truth I’ve come to learn about those pretty manicures — and perhaps the one you get at your local nail salon or even do at home. They were most likely totally toxic.

Most nail polish brands, especially the cheaper ones I used to buy at the drug store, are chock-full of harmful chemicals linked with all kinds of health-related issues, including fertility problems and cancer.

You would think those strong chemical odors wafting from inside those nail salons would have tipped me off to this, but I have to admit I never thought about it. Thankfully, the beauty industry has.

There is such a thing as clean beauty nail polish, and it’s free from many of the worst chemicals. In this article, you’ll learn the different kinds of non-toxic nail polish as well as which brands are the best.

Non-Toxic Nail Polish Primer

When I write primer, I don’t mean that first coat before the color. I’m talking about a quick chemistry lesson filled with words that are tricky to pronounce. The crazy chemicals that make up cheap polish are worth learning, but don’t worry — you don’t have to memorize them. The industry made it easy for us by splitting it up into different levels of clean beauty:

  • 3-Free

  • 5-Free

  • 7-Free

  • 10-Free

  • 12-Free

The first three that are removed from the regular nail polish formulas are: dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde. The next level removes formaldehyde resin and camphor. Then, 7-Free also takes out parabens and xylene. The 10-free nail polish formulas also exclude fragrances, phthalates, and animal ingredients. The final two ingredients left out of the 12-free polish are ethyl tosylamide and triphenyl phosphate.

As someone who loves coconut oil, organic ingredients, and non-toxic toothpaste, I felt a little ashamed of myself for not realizing how the chemicals in nail polish would impact my health. Just because nails seem harder than skin, they’re not. Nail beds are much more permeable than skin, meaning all those chemicals soak directly into your body.

Best Clean Beauty Nail Polish

Since non-toxic polishes are hard to come by in the drug store unless you’re in a big city, a good option is to buy a few polishes online. You can bring them to your local manicurist, and then you’ll have the bottle ready in case of a random chip (guilty!)

Here are a few brands worth a try:

10 Free Chemistry

10 Free Chemistry is a gel polish that should be called 21 Free since they keep finding ways to improve their vegan, plant-based formula. It’s made with the environment in mind, with sustainable ingredients and eco-packaging — although I still think you ought to buy more than one bottle if you’re going to get packaging from Amazon.

I don’t usually opt for gel polish, but there’s something to be said for new technology that allows for more than 10 days of wear. This formula also works to strengthen nails with good stuff like vitamins and minerals. Try their “Prep with Peptides” as a base coat that moisturizes your nail bed and reduces stains caused by dryness.

EMMA Beauty Active Nail Polish

For the gel gunshy, there’s EMMA Beauty Active Nail Polish. This 12+ free polish is also vegan and cruelty-free, which I appreciate. So many of the big brands still pay for unnecessary and inhumane testing on animals. I definitely don’t need a bunny to die so my nails look cute.

EMMA Beauty has a rainbow of fun, bright colors in a fast-dry formula that can last up to a week. I find that if I can get my polish to dry, I can keep my manicure looking good; am I the only one who instantly becomes a klutz when the polish is wet and perfect?

ILNP Portfolio Nail Polish

ILNP Cosmetics had me at “subtle holographic” — that sounds mesmerizing! These colors are also chip-resistant, vegan, and 7-free. Now, the formula should get an extra number for being cruelty-free, but I guess it’s “Price Is Right” rules for marketing. (I’m not the only one who watched “Price is Right” when I was home sick from school, probably painting my nails, right? The rule is the closest bid without going over wins.)

It’s also worth noting that this is a small business brand. I’m a fan of supporting new projects launched by growing beauty brands, instead of supporting already established conglomerates. Smaller businesses tend to care more about our environment and communities, in general.


Another clean beauty nail polish produced by a small business, LONDONTOWN LAKUR has a sophisticated palette of colors that are also 16+ free. Yes, that’s above and beyond the normal numbering system, so it’s worth checking out. This is also made in the USA, despite the name.

three bottles of nail polish
LAKUR Nail Polish

Even though this isn’t a gel polish, the reviews say it says on for longer than expected. I personally like the look of the Diamond Dusted Mani, a package that includes a base and top coat that contain natural botanicals and plant oils to help nourish nails.

TOMICCA Kids Nail Polish Set

If you’re interested in making some cool designs like I enjoyed when I lived in Vietnam, you’ll need a rainbow of cute colors. A fun way to get them all — or possibly get a fun gift for a niece or little sister — is with TOMICCA Kids Nail Polish Set. This set of 12 colors is free of formaldehyde, benzophenone, and heavy metals. That’s a slightly different definition from 3 free, but you get the idea.

This set isn’t polish, but nontoxic peel-and-stick polish in colors that of course include glittery ones. While they may not fit your hands depending on your hand size, they’re a sweet clean beauty nail polish option for those with kid-sized nails.

Tips for Healthy Nails

You’ll need more than a non-toxic polish if your nails are unhealthy. Follow these tips from the American Academy of Dermatology to keep your nails looking their best:

  • Clean and dry your nails every day

  • When cutting, use a sharp clipper and cut straight across. For strength, rounded edges are the best (but if you want to get on that sharp point trend, I’m not going to stop you!)

  • Don’t bite your nails or your cuticles. Use a tool if you have a hangnail!

  • Never use your nails instead of a tool to peel or open something

  • Keep your nails au naturale every so often

  • Moisturize your nails regularly with coconut oil or another all-natural product

  • Go to a dermatologist if you get an ingrown nail — don’t do the surgery yourself!

  • Always wear sandals in public places like gym locker rooms and pools

Finally, if you’re going to a nail salon, make sure they’re properly licensed. They should display their current state licensure on the wall, and you should see their methods for sterilizing their tools in between clients. And if they consistently ask you why you’re not married because you’re so pretty, ignore the first part but remember the second. You are pretty, polished, and healthy!



bottom of page