We dove into the world of 10-free, 8-free and 5-free nail polish to determine not only the most nourishing nontoxic nail polish on the market, but where clean meets performance. We looked at more than 25 less-toxic nail polishes and narrowed it down to our top 5 and tested those to see which one came out on top. Here are the best nontoxic nail polishes, with the best performance.
By: Lisa Fennessy
IN THIS POST:
- What’s even in nail polish?
- The TNK nontoxic nail polish study
- The best nontoxic nail polish brands
- Kure Bazaar
- Olive & June
- Sally Hansen GOOD.KIND.PURE
- BONUS: A better gel manicure (at HOME!)
Nail polish can be tricky to navigate for several reasons. First, let’s call out the elephant in the room: Nail polish is paint y’all. Therefore, there’s no way it will ever be all 100% organic jojoba oil and pressed roses…paint needs ingredients like solvents and structure-inducing polymers to make it function. And that’s why we don’t see “organic” nail polish lining the shelves at Target. 🤷🏻♀️
The other confusing thing with nail polishes is language, labeling and advertising claims, such as “3-free” or “nontoxic.” These claims do not need premarket approval by the FDA or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and there is very limited regulation and enforcement of nail polish products.
That being said, some nail polish brands have tweaked and pushed and pulled formulas so that they still work BUT are formulated with fewer of the harsher chemicals. These are the brands we’re talking about here.
Language like 3-free, 5-free and more
To really drill down, we have to back up. The idea of 3-free nail polish came about in the 2000s when nail polish manufacturers started promoting “3-free” nail polish formulas that excluded three toxic chemicals: formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate.
- Formaldehyde is officially classified as a human carcinogen. (1)
- Toluene at very low levels is highly genotoxic causing DNA damage and mutations in humans. (2)
- Dibutyl phthalate in animal studies identifies DnBP as a reproductive and developmental toxicant. (3, 4)
As formulas evolved to remove these toxic ingredients, the “XX-free” idea snowballed and “3-free” became “5-free” which became “10-free”—and I’ve even seen claims as high as “13-free” or “16-free”! This number continued to rise as new health-compromising ingredients were identified and removed like dibutyl phthalates’ replacement TPHP, acetone, xylene, tosylamide, parabens and more.
It’s the natural evolution of pushing the formulation envelope and it’s one of the benefits of having multiple brands competing in the same space. This competition for brands to position themselves uniquely in the market forces brands to create better which is why we see this evolution.
This is great for us as conscious consumers because it means the constant refinement of what a less toxic nail polish can look like and how it can perform. Nail poish formulas will continue to evolve overtime and I’m personally excited to see what they will look like in 5 years.
Nail polish ingredients today
This also means that mainstream nail polishes are evolving. Mainstream brands hear consumers want safer options and they adjust. When I sat down to start researching this post, I looked at mainstream brands too like Revlon, Chanel and Maybelline and honestly, I couldn’t find not even one formula that still included toluene or dibutyl phthalate.
This is important to note because when brands are making claims like “10-free” or “8-free” or listing all of their “NO ingredients,” it’s not really setting them as much apart from the mainstream as these marketing tactics suggest.
Finding a cleaner nail polish really means taking a look at what’s in the formula rather than what’s not.
In addition to this, more thoughtful brands have not only stripped out the more dangerous ingredients, they’ve also started adding in beautiful, nourishing ingredients too. This post is an opportunity to look at and celebrate these decisions as well.
The TNK Nontoxic Nail Polish Study
For this study, we worked with cosmetic chemist Esinam Agbley, to comb through over 25 nail polish brands that market themselves as nontoxic or natural or “XX-free.” You can see all the brands that were included here.
We wanted to identify ingredients to consider in today’s “XX-free” nail polish market (not the antiquated market of “no formaldehyde, no toluene and no dibutyl phthalate”).
After looking at everything, we were able to identify 5 brands that stood out from the rest.
The tipping point
It’s no longer formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate that are the only ingredients to consider when it comes to nail polish. Benzophenone-1 (BP-1) in particular stands out as a concern. Benzophenone-1 is used as a UV absorber in cosmetic products, it’s been found to have estrogenic activity (5, 6, 7, 8) and it’s found in a lot of “XX-free” nail polishes. And the same goes for benzophenone-3. (5)
This information is not meant to vilify brands who do formulate with benzophenone. This is meant to be a resource for people who want help making informed decisions when it comes to reading and understanding nail polish ingredients.
It’s important to keep in mind that using a nail polish with benzophenone-1 but without formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, TPHP, acetone, formaldehyde resin, xylene, tosylamide and parabens is obviously also a better choice.
This decision is also more impactful for avid nail polish wearers over occasional nail polish wearers. Take this info in stride and use it to choose what’s best for you.
I personally wanted to discover the best of the best when it comes to better nail polish. For me, this means finding a formula to celebrate that also performs.
After looking through all the labels with Esinam, we identified 5 brands that had the least number of concerning ingredients. Then we tested each brand with 2 coats of polish + their own respective top and bottom coat….or whatever the line provided. If they had both, we used both. If they only had a top coat, we only used a topcoat. Here are our results.
The best nontoxic nail polish brands
KURE BAAZAR | $18
not tested on animals
Kure Bazaar nail polishes are made of 85% natural ingredients and they deliver “healthier nails in color, day after day.” They glide on smooth, slick and shiny, and come in a variety of on-trend shades.
Kure is currently one of the most shocking nail poish formulas (IMO) on the market. It’s formulated without the aforementioned typical concerning nail polish ingredients. It’s also void of benzophenone-1 and benzophenone-3 as well.
In fact Kure goes above and beyond adding the following nourishing ingredients into their polish formulas:
- Sunflower seed oil, which is rich in oleic acid (omega-9), vitamin E, and rich in linoleic acid (Omega-6). It functions as an emollient and offers moisturizing, nourishing, and soothing effects.
- Bamboo leaf/stem extract, which is moisturizing and nourishing.
- Tocopherol: an antioxidant.
RELATED: Best spring nail polish colors.
Kure Bazaar Pros
- High shine, beautiful ingredients, and a beautiful mix of trendy and classic colors.
- I love Kure’s topcoat. It’s more of a quick-dry formula that adds a crazy amount of instant shine.
Kure Bazaar Cons (Considerations)
- This is a softer formula that has a tendency to take on marks and bed sheet creases easier than other formulas I’ve tried.
- Sometimes this happens when too much product is applied, however I found when I layered less product, I got less of an opaque color (read: streaking).
Both of these critiques are on the mild end of the spectrum. The streaking is not very streaky and the softness is not very soft. However, if you are going into this like me trying to find the crossroads of where the cleanest nail polish meets the highest performing nail polish, then you will probably notice these as well.
Also, the Base Coat here is critical. I tried using this polish with and without and it performed 100% better with the Base Coat. The base coat has a sort of tacky/grabby element to it—not to the touch but when the color hits the base, it grabbed on. I could literally see this happening with my own eyeballs. It also extended the wear by 1-2 days.
As an added note, the Kure Bazaar remover is INSANE. I never thought I would be in love with a nail polish remover but Kure’s Natural Nail Polish Remover has got me wrapped around its little finger. First of all, it’s packaged in glass (SOLD). The bottle is LARGE and beautiful and sits heavy in your hand. The branding bold, edgy and TDF.
And most importantly the ingredients are LEGIT off the chain. It’s minimalistically and EFFECTIVELY formulated. I mean, it basically removes polish clean off with dimethyl succinate and rosa damascena flower water and I’m over here like 😲😳🤔😎😍. It also has ingredients like rosa rubiginosa seed oil, which is highly moisturizing and provides excellent anti-aging properties, helping in the regeneration and healing of damaged skin.
CÔTE | $18
vegan, cruelty-free and hand-poured in the USA
Côte founders Mary Lennon and Leah Yari created Côte to provide a safe, transparent, quality product and an elegant nail care experience that could be shared with their families and friends without worry.
Côte is void of all the typical “NO LIST” ingredients you will see listed on nail polishes and most of their colors are free from benzophenone-1 as well (but not all). However, they are currently phasing out benzophenone from the entire line. I reached out and asked for a list of all the products that were currently benzophenone-free, which you can peep here.
In fact, Côte goes above and beyond and includes the following nourishing ingredients into their polish formulas:
- Safflower seed oil, which is rich in oleic and linoleic essential fatty acids and has high levels of vitamin E. It’s also a potent antioxidant/anti-inflammatory.
- Garlic bulb, which is anti-aging, antifungal, antioxidant and can also help smooth the skin. When applied topically, garlic is a good healer for skin infections and can help improve circulation.
Côte also works in conjunction with an environmental services company that provides recycling management services specific to nail polish. That translates to you getting 10% off your next polish purchase when you bring in any used bottle of polish into one of their shops.
- Offers a 2-in-1 top/base coat and a beautiful shade range.
- Has a recycling program for used nail polish.
- I love the Strengthening Top/Base coat. First of all, who doesn’t like a 2-in-1 and second, it’s formulated with calcium pantothenate (vitamin B5) and coffee extract to help strengthen natural nails = beneficial for weak, thin, splitting or peeling nails. It also delivers a beautiful high shine.
Côte Cons (Considerations)
- Some shades contain benzophenone.
- It’s maybe a little unfair to compare light colors to dark colors. I tried their polish in No.7, which is very light. It went on a bit streaky but did even out a bit as it settled in. Three coats would be better than two here.
- The brush is thinner and a little stiffer, which also made it more susceptible to an uneven application.
- Be sure to give yourself ample dry time to avoid marks and imprints.
OLIVE + JUNE | $8
cruelty free + vegan
When Olive + June founder Sarah Gibson Tuttle moved from NY to LA and couldn’t find a “perfect” nail salon, she created one. (I like her style!)
Olive + June is “salon-quality” and formulated without the aforementioned typical concerning nail polish ingredients. It’s also void of benzophenone-1 and benzophenone-3.
We didn’t notice any specific nail enhancing or conditioning agents included in this formula, so let’s skip to the pros and cons.
Olive + June Pros
- By far the most robust amount of shade options available here out of all our picks.
- A hard finish and not susceptible to creasing or denting.
- Shininess held up for days and didn’t dull over time.
- Two coats delivered a totally opaque coverage (no streaking).
- And at $8, the price is definitely a pro too.
Overall O+J is a great experience. I love that this is a harder, more structured finish. This polish was able to take more of a beating without chipping and held up for DAYZZZ. You can see day 5 (photo below) looked almost as good as day one, less a tiny chip on my thumb.
I also received their Clean Up Brush and I LOVE IT. I’ve ruined so many manis and makeup brushes trying to turn a lip brush into a nail polish remover tool. This one is great and it’s only $8!
RELATED: Check out my summer nail polish collection in collaboration with Olive & June.
Olive + June Cons (Considerations)
- SUPER wide brush that may be too big for narrower nail beds. I mean, I have wide nail beds and I even struggled a bit to control the color.
- There is a lot going on over at the O+J website. There’s Olive University, master classes, boot camp….they even have beginner, intermediate and advanced formulas (?). IDK, I found it to be a little overwhelming but maybe that’s just me.
- In that same vein, I was sent a full kit and I found most of the tools to be superfluous. I would recommend just ordering the shades you want and bypassing their systems or kits.
RELATED: A review of Olive & June
HUELLA | $18
vegan + made in the USA
Huella caught our eye with their chic packaging and benzophenone-free formula. This line currently comes in 34 fun and fresh colors in varying finishes.
Founder Georgia Assaf created Huella when she couldn’t find an option she felt comfortable letting her young daughter use. She specifically wanted to create something that was high-shine + benzophenone-free.
We are smitten with Huella’s angular top that can actually be removed (or kept on) so you can use the wand with a grip that suits you. Or…
Georgia explains, “The cap not only looks beautiful but actually has a purpose. When removed, you can set your finger on it to raise each nail to make it easier to polish.”
Huella presents an edited, no-frills formula. Georgia adds, “Many of the brands on the market are actually the same formula, so I set out to find a formula that works just as well but even cleaner. Our polish is easy to remove and won’t damage your nails, yet is still created to last for days.”
- Stylish, eye catching packaging and a fun range of colors.
- Professional-grade flat brush for an even finish.
- Dries hard. Beautiful shine.
Huella Cons (Considerations)
- This is a thinner formula which I love because it dries fast but it needs to be applied “correctly.”
- Huella has a technique guide listed in the description of each polish that emphasizes sealing the edge of your fingertips with every single layer. Personally, this is hard for me to do because I keep my nails so short but someone with longer nails may have better success and consequently, longer wear time.
SALLY HANSEN GOOD. KIND. PURE. | $6.72
The most shocking discovery of this entire study was realizing Sally Hansen made it to our top 5. I mean, GO SALLY!
Sally Hansen’s polish touts itself as “the first plant-based 16-free vegan nail polish” (16-free 😂). It comes in 30 shades, is 77% naturally derived and also includes “a new plant-based brush.” And I’ve gotta say, the brush is actually everything here. It’s wider than normal but not clunky and it delivers a seamless, dare I say, PRO application.
Sally Hansen GOOD. KIND. PURE is formulated without the aforementioned concerning nail polish ingredients and it’s also void of benzophenone-1 and benzophenone-3 as well.
In fact, Sally Hansen goes above and beyond adding the following nourishing ingredients into their polish formulas:
- Methylthioppopylamido acetyl methionine: An antioxidant peptide that has DNA protection, cell protection and light protection benefits.
- Persea gratissima (avocado) fruit extract: An effective skin conditioner.
- Camellia sinensis leaf extract: Contains antioxidants and is effective for protecting skin cells against damage from sun exposure.
- Spinacia oleracea (spinach) leaf extract: An effective skin conditioner.
Sally Hansen Pros
- Number one: the price.
- Also, accessibility. You can find Sally Hansen at most drugstore stores like CVS and Walgreens.
- Great wear time.
- The brush delivers a seamless application and was EASY to apply.
- Dries pretty quickly.
Sally Hansen Cons (Considerations)
- The color range has some gems but overall it’s a little lackluster and dare I say dated?
- In the right light, it can look streaky—some shades may need three coats.
And if you dig through the ingredient list, you will see some ingredients like EDTA that are less than ideal. Kate Noonan, molecular biologist, and cosmetic chemist explains that “Although EDTA can be a concerning ingredient in skincare, it’s used in a super-minute amount in nail polishes.”
The GOOD. KIND. PURE. line doesn’t have an obvious base coat but after reading through all the options, it looks like the Hardener can be used as a base coat (or as a second topcoat). We tested it both ways.
Without the Hardener as a base coat, it looked great for 2 full days and with the Hardener, it lasted a bit longer. And in both instances, we used the G.P.K. Top Coat too.
This formula dried hard enough—like if you painted your nails at 4 pm, you would be okay overnight with little to no creasing.
So excited to recommend this brand as an accessible and affordable option!
Dazzle Dry | $18
not tested on animals + vegan + made in the USA
Dazzle Dry doesn’t really belong in this post because it’s not a “traditional” nail polish. It’s actually classified as (and behaves as) a gel so, if you’re looking for a swap for a gel mani, girl, THIS IS IT.
This is a 4-step nail system that promises a 2-week wear time. And I got 14 days out of my mani, so I’m including it here as an option!
Founder Dr. Vivian Valenty launched this system in 2007 as the “only quick-drying, long-lasting natural nail care system of its kind.”
It’s free from all of the aforementioned ingredients to consider including benzophenone. The brand’s top coat does contain fragrance and cyclomethicone—which again are probably not concerning when percentages are factored into the equation.
On the flip, Dazzle Dry shares that their formulas also “do not contain nitrocellulose, which can cause nail plates to yellow and nail polish to degrade.” They continue, “Because of this, our products never expire and your nails never yellow.”
Dazzle Dry Pros
- LONG LASTING + QUICK DRYING. A better swap to conventional gel formulas and conventional gel application.
- I loved everything about the performance here. The quick-dry and the long-wear benefits are GAME CHANGERS. It’s a paint and go experience that pays dividends for weeks (yes, “weeks” as in plural! 😂).
Dazzle Dry Cons (Considerations)
- Price. You have to buy the entire system, which is an initial $60 investment.
- The multi-step system presents a bit of a learning curve.
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5. Kerdivel, Gwenneg; Le Guevel, Remy; Habauzit, Denis; et. al. Estrogenic Potency of Benzophenone UV Filters in Breast Cancer Cells: Proliferative and Transcriptional Activity Substantiated by Docking Analysis. April 4, 2013. (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0060567)
6. BP-1 was found to be mutagenic in the Ames test (Wang et al. 2018) and caused epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) of BG-1 ovarian cancer cells (Shin, et al. 2016).
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A list of brands included in this study
- Sally Hansen GOOD.KIND.PURE.
- Kure Bazaar
- Smith + Cult
- Butter London
- Ella + Mila
- Deborah Lipmann
- Jin Soon
- Londontown Lakur
- Olive + June
- Flora 1761
- Nash + Pino
- Nails Inc.
- Dazzle Dry
- Base Coat
- 10 Free Chemistry
- Stella Chroma
CÔTE products that are currently benzophenone-1 free
- 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 27, 32, 38, 41, 43, 46, 50, 55, 56, 61, 71, 96, 98, 99, 110, 111,119,120,121,122, 123, 124, 125 and…
- Growth with Garlic Base Coat
- Protective Base & Top Coat
- Quick Dry Top Coat
- Smoothing Base Coat
- Resurface & Repair Base Coat
- Strengthening Base & Top Coat
Benzophenone-1 (BP-1) in particular stands out as a concern. Benzophenone-1 is used as a UV absorber in cosmetic products, it’s been found to have estrogenic activity (5, 6, 7, 8) and it’s found in a lot of “XX-free” nail polishes. And the same goes for benzophenone-3. (5)
Nail polish is paint y’all. Therefore, there’s no way it will ever be all 100% organic jojoba oil and pressed roses…paint needs ingredients like solvents and structure-inducing polymers to make it function. And that’s why we don’t see “organic” nail polish lining the shelves at Target.