The "Clean" Nail Polish Guide

You’ve heard of clean skincare, the movement toward using fewer chemicals and synthetic ingredients in favor of naturally sourced materials. Now, nail polish is moving in the same direction. But what does that mean?

“‘Natural’ or ‘clean’ polish is somewhat of a misnomer, as nail polish is not something that grows or can be found in nature,” explains New York City–based dermatologist Dana Stern, who specializes in nail health. But as consumers become more conscious about what they’re putting on their bodies, companies are taking certain ingredients out of their formulas and calling them “clean.” But there is no government standard for what this term means. (Companies and retailers can have their own definitions and lists of no-no ingredients.) In the nail world, most brands label their polishes by the number of “non-clean” ingredients left out (“3-Free,” “5-Free,” etc.). Here’s what those categorizations mean and why some of the omitted ingredients may have a bad rap.

3-Free: This baseline for healthy polish omits these three ingredients, which are universally shunned by the modern nail industry.


Still used as a preservative in cosmetics, this known carcinogen is also linked to asthma.

Phthalates (like DBP)

This class of plasticizing chemicals, used to make products more pliable, can disrupt the reproductive system and may cause birth defects.


The toxic ingredient, which helps to suspend pigment evenly
in a formula, can damage the nervous system and cause birth defects.

5-Free: These two additional chemicals may cause concerns, so they’re sometimes removed as well.

Formaldehyde resin

Often used to add shine and durability to a polish, the substance has been shown to cause allergic reactions for some people.


This compound may be used to keep polishes from cracking, but inhaling it has been shown to cause dizziness, headaches, and nausea.

7-Free, 8-Free, 10-Free, and Beyond

Brands may remove additional materials, such as the plasticizer ethyl tosylamide, which can cause antibiotic resistance, or others irritants or ingredients rumored to cause disruptions to the body. But many companies ditch ingredients simply because of negative consumer perceptions (often fueled by online rumors or a general assump- tion that chemicals are “bad”) rather than scientific evidence.

The Clean Crew: Health-conscious polish brands are cropping up everywhere. Here, the best formulas of the bunch.

This story appears in the February 2020 issue of Marie Claire.

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Taylore  Glynn

Taylore Glynn is the Beauty and Health Editor at Marie Claire, covering skincare, makeup, fragrance, wellness, and more. If you need her, she’s probably roasting a chicken, flying solo at the movies, or drinking a bad Negroni at JFK.