Conventional Nail Polish

A chemical nightmare


Unlike many other types of cosmetics, nail polish is a new invention – they haven’t existed for hundreds of years – and so it is more difficult to find natural alternatives. There is no exact formula for nail polish; it depends on the chemists and chemical engineers decisions and recipes are closely held corporate secrets, but there are a number of basic components. These are: film forming agents, solvents, resins and plasticizers and coloring agents.

Film forming agent

Nitrocellulose cotton is the most commonly used, and is the main ingredient to nail polish. Nitrocellulose is a liquid which is mixed with extremely fine pieces of ground cotton fiber. It is used in different viscosities depending on the desired viscosity of the nail polish.

The film forming forms the hard surface to nail polish needed for it to work properly, but they make it very brittle.


Solvents hold the coloring and other parts of the nail polish until it is applied, when they evaporate. The amount and type of solvent change depending on how thick the nail polish is and how long it takes to dry.

Commonly used solvents include ethyl acetate (C4H8O2), butyl acetate (C6H12O2) and alcohol (CH3CH2OH). Some very toxic solvents are Toluene, xylene and formaldehyde; these are starting to become less common. Until the sovent evaporates the nail polish is a liquid.


Resins stick the film to the nail bed; they are the ‘glue’. They are used to improve the polish’s resistance. There is never only one type of resin or one combination that meets every specification. Resins are usually polymers (long strings of molecules), for example tosylamide-formaldehyde (C8H11NO3S). Resins too make the nail polish very brittle.


Films and resins once dried are brittle. Plasticizers link to polymer chains and increase the distance between them, making the polish much more flexible. Camphor (C10H16O) is the most commonly used.


A huge array of chemicals is used as coloring agents, for example iron oxide to coal tar to plant based pigments. Glitter effects are often achieved with ground pearlescent minerals such as titanium dioxide (TIO2).

Manufacturing Etc.

Getting the raw materials for nail polish to the manufacturing plants themselves is a very under-rated process considering the ingredients are sourced from all around the world. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to ship them all to the manufacturing plant even before the making of nail polish begins.

For example if we tracked the carbon footprint of a single ingredient, for example 20 000 kg of titanium dioxide from South Africa to make glimmer nail polish, it would result in 9 404 952 g (10 metric tons) of CO2 emissions to get that one ingredient alone to the manufacturer, a sixtieth of the annual average emission of a Canadian.

Nail polish itself is made in several steps.

  1. Firstly pigments are blended with ground with nitrocellulose and a plasticizser through a triple roll mill, then dried and chipped into chips.
  2. These chips are blended into a dissolved nitrocellulose solution in stainless steel kettles with water cooling jackets using a shear mixing blade.
  3. When the color has been evenly spread, the solvents and the rest of the ingredients are added and the viscosity is adjusted. This step is done in a special room designed so that, in the very likely case of an explosion the roofs will safely blow off without endangering the rest of the building.
  4. Only after the mixture is cooled are ingredients such as perfumes and moisturizers added, and the mixture funneled into bottles.

The energy source used most commonly by manufacturers of cosmetics is still oil and gas. Less often, coal is used and least often nuclear. These main energy sources are still major problems, causing lost of pollution and complications.


Nail polish bottles are made of glass and of different types of plastic. They have plastic wrappers on the necks to prevent them being opened before sale.

The plastics that make up the handle, wand and wrapper for the nail polish are made primarily of oil – non-renewable and detrimental to get. The process of making plastic (and forming it into nail polish bottle products) takes a lot of energy and employs toxic chemicals such as acetonitrile and formaldehyde. The process of making glass (and forming it into nail polish bottles) too takes a lot of energy and involves lots of mining for silica (found in sand and sandstone).


Thankfully, about 20% of our glass is recycled, so the glass bottles of nail polish can be crushed, melted, and re-used. The glass recycling process dose take a lot of energy but is far better than having it go to landfills.

The plastic part of nail polish containers however is not recyclable. It is not one of the 7 types that can be recycled (PET, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PP, PS, Other) and therefor is a contributor to the huge issue of plastic polution. As said by Dr. David Burnes: “One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics."

Waste and bi-products

On rare occasions waste is recycled; but only on rare occasions.

  • Non-hazardous liquid waste is most often dumped in the foul sewer – agreements on this vary from place to place.
  • Hazardous liquids sometimes include chlorinated and non-chlorinated organic solvents and other chemicals that are potentially corrosive, flammable or contaminate the environment. These are usually stored in containers until they are collected and incinerated where they make kookoo air pollution. Solid wastes in general are also incinerated.
  • Sometimes there are small amounts of biological waste from, for example, bacteria count tests. This is incinerated. Oil from maintenance activities is collected by contractors and incinerated.
  • Other waste such as rejected product, packaging and botanical waste is shipped off to landfills. Empty containers also end up in landfills.

Incineration creates mucho air pollution, and landfills are self-evident.

Price, ease of use and the rest

The packaging of nail polish is simple, effective and convenient. The prices vary a lot because of the different styles and brands of nail polishes, but many are low because the ingredients that make up nail polish are ones used widely in conventional cosmetics and being in high demand are readily available. Also, many cosmetic companies make nail polish as well as makeup and so are able to get deals on ingredients in bulk.

The crazy cocktail of chemicals in nail polish ensure that is it goes on smoothly, that is dries quickly and that the ingredients don't separate for at least 4 years.

Companies are fast coming up with new and exciting products such as super metallic (with large quantities of finely ground metals such as titanium dioxide), and new ways of applying nail polish (such as design pens) that are keeping the market fun and in style for the consumers.


Conventional nail polish is being slowly exposed for the toxic thing it is. The mix of chemicals are detrimental to human health and to the environment as well.

The Toxic Trio is the most infamously dangerous thing about nail polish to human health. It consists of

  • Toluene: is a solvent, a colorless liquid hydrocarbon (C6H5CH3) used to make give nail polish a smooth glassy finish. It also releases violate chemicals into the air which cause headache, dizziness, fatigue and irritated eyes, nose and throat. It also is toxic to the liver and kidneys and can be transmitted through an fetus or an infant via breast milk.
  • Formaldehyde: a preservative which hardens nail polish and stops it from chipping. It irritates nose and throat and can cause coughing and wheezing. It is also a carcinogen and has been outlawed in Europe.
  • Dibutyl phthalate (DBP): is a plasticizer which is a well known carcinogen and causes birth deffects and reproductive system. It is also toxic to liver, lungs and kidneys.

Aside from the chemicals in the nail polish itself, the process of making it is very risqué. It is all very flammable and very explosive. Precautions are mandatory, but accidents are inevitable and when they happen the are deadly and wide spread.

Nail polish is one of a woman's best accessories and is in very high demand. It is hardly worth it however. The Toxic Trio is not the only thing toxic about nail polish. The other ingredients are as well, and cause damage to much of the body as well as nails. There is nothing remotely green about nail polish, it is dangerous through and through.