In a mirror universe to ingredients lists lies the world of NOT ingredient lists—call-outs of “dirty,” “toxic,” or otherwise bad-for-you ingredients you won’t find in your beauty products. All of the big nail brands are doing it these days, adding “free” behind a seemingly arbitrary number to tell you how many capital B Bad ingredients their polishes lack. Zoya is “10-Free,” Deborah Lippmann is “7-Free,” and Smith & Cult is “8-Free.”
And the ingredients these formulas choose to exclude vary. In fact, after combing through the nail polish ingredient lists available on Ulta.com, I was able to extricate a whopping 24 different ingredients that nail polish brands were proud to say they didn't have. It gets more complicated—this study examined the toxicity of 26 ingredients, and just now, as I was writing this paragraph, I found a natural nail polish brand that cites two more potentially harmful additives not mentioned in any other list. Twenty-eight potentially “toxic” nail polish ingredients is alarming for sure, but that brands can’t seem to agree how many are toxic in the first place is downright confusing. Why only exclude five? Why bump it up to eight, nine, or more?
If all of this sounds a little fishy, it’s because it sort of is. Many of the “toxic” nail polish ingredients you’re told to avoid aren’t usually in nail polish to begin with. The manufacturer for the natural nail brand J. Hannah and many others, told me that eight of the 28 ingredients from my questionable ingredients master list never appear in polish formulas at all. No need to worry about hydroquinone (claimed by Orly), gluten (Côte and Acquarella), or parabens (Jin Soon, Sundays, Zoya).
The Not Ingredient list trend can be traced back to 2005, when the nail polish brand Butter London launched with a simple mission: to formulate nail polishes without formaldehyde, toluene, and DBP—three ingredients widely accepted as health hazards. Others quickly jumped on the "3-Free" bandwagon, and the exclusions list arms race began as brands proudly avoided more and more chemicals. “Just because a producer says they are 8-Free does not mean they are the same eight that we avoid in our product,” says Jess Hannah Révész, founder of J. Hannah. And she's right: this study identified six different 10-Free label definitions, three different definitions of 7-Free, and three more of 5-Free. And while many online explainers of 10, 7, and 5-Free polish try to generalize what exactly they mean, in reality, there are no hard and fast rules.
Fortunately, sometimes the government steps in. In 2012, the California Environmental Protection Agency tested a bunch of nail polishes at random, and found that three out of seven that claimed to be free of DBP, a possible carcinogen and hormone disruptor banned in the EU, actually tested positive for it. Later on in 2017, researchers looked for triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), an ingredient linked to potential endocrine disruption in humans, in 10 different nail polishes. The results? TPHP was in two out of three polishes that were marketed as TPHP-free. The study that followed summed it up best: “Consumers may not be able to reliably avoid polishes containing TPHP based on product labels.” No kidding.
Part of the issue is that there are no industry-wide toxicity standards—or even any scientific consensus on what toxic actually means. Even if we take brands at their word and assume they really are non-toxic, every brand has the liberty to define what non-toxic means to them. It’s particularly confusing when sorting through nail polish ingredients, because they’re so, well, chemical-y in the first place.
But brands can benefit off of this confusion. It’s called greenwashing: Brands that advertise as 5, 7, 8, 10, or 13-Free cost an average of $17 more per fluid ounce than brands that don’t label their products as anything. “The higher average price point may be motivating brands to use new generation labels with more exclusions,” suggests researchers.
“Our nail polish packaging until recently read ‘7-Free,’ but we have decided to remove it,” says Révész. “If I was putting a label on a bottle of nail polish without really diving in to understand what that verbiage means, I was also being complicit. It starts an unending cycle with brands using tricky language to one-up each other, which only serves to confuse and mislead.”
So, here’s what you can do now. Instead of relying on brands to be forthcoming, you can research nail polish ingredients yourself. A good resource for checking an ingredient’s toxicity is the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that compiles research on chemical testing and gives each compound a score from 1 to 10. One means the chemical poses little to no safety risk to consumers—10 means the safety risk is high. Another resource is PubChem, a database compiled by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Alternately, you can choose to stand by brands you trust. “We have to demand a new standard of transparency and that starts with doing what we can to lead by example,” says Révész, “and foster an environment where customers feel like they can have their questions answered and be equipped with the tools to know what questions to ask.” Or you can choose to forgo nail polish altogether! It’s kind of chic anyway, no? Whatever you decide to do, know the facts first.
Now that we've got your attention, here are a few nail polishes that ITG really loves for fall.
Photos via ITG