What’s The Deal With 3-Free Nail Polish?

Up until recently, nail polish was the one thing that I chose to use that I knew contained ingredients that I was trying to avoid. I’ve always loved painting my nails, and it’s pretty rare for me to not have a coat of some lacquer on my fingers. I also thought most nail polishes were very similar in terms of what they contained. Of course I always opted for the 3-free nail polish formulas (as there was no way I was putting formaldehyde on myself!), but after doing a bit of research I learnt that while 3-free nail polish is better than no-free, it’s still really not the best option if you’re trying to use less toxic beauty products. So what does 3-free, 5-free etc really mean? And why does it matter? Well I’ve done the research so you don’t have to!

Up until recently ingredients in nail polish weren’t very closely scrutinised. It was sort of assumed that since the polish was going on to your technically dead nails,  it wasn’t getting absorbed into the body and therefore the chemicals were having no effect. The issue is that the nails themselves can actually be quite porous, as well as the delicate skin and cuticle around the nail. I’ve recently read several studies where they did tests on subjects where they monitored chemical levels in the body directly before and after the application of nail polish. Chemical levels rose sharply directly after the application,  which is more than proof that what you apply to you nails is in fact being absorbed into your body. If your interested in reading this you can do so here

3-Free Nail Polish: Whats The Deal?

The majority of mainstream nail polishes are 3-free – think Essie, OPI, Sally Hansen etc. This means they do not contain Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP), Formaldehyde, and Toluene. These three chemicals are widely regarded as being carcinogenic, and they can also be known to irritate the skin or nail bed, as well as causing nausea and dizziness. You’ll still find these chemicals pop up in some nail products, especially the cheaper or dollar store brands. I purchased an Essence nail hardener a few months back, to realise on the ingredients list that it contained formaldehyde. Safe to say it was in the bin immediately. It seems to be a common factor in nail hardeners especially, so make sure you’re checking the label to ensure they are formaldehyde-free (Essie do one!). Even if you’re not interested in natural products, I urge you to at least use a 3-free nail polish as these three chemicals are harsh.

One step up from 3-free is 5-free. Brands such as Chanel (which was a surprise), Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics, Butter London, and Priti NYC are all considered to be 5-free. This means that as well as the DBP, Formaldehyde and Toulene, they have also removed Formaldehyde Resin and Camphor from their formulas. Formaldehyde resin contains formaldehyde in small amounts and while it’s not extremely toxic, it can be a major irritant for some people. Camphor has been proven to cause liver damage when absorbed through the skin and it’s also nasty to ingest if you’re a regular nail biter. However the amounts of camphor found in most nail polishes are extremely small and you’d have to absorb a lot of this chemical through your skin to cause these issues. To be honest, there’s probably not a huge difference between 3-free and 5-free in terms of toxicity, but for those with sensitive skin, allergies, or if you’re simply trying to keep your nail polish cleaner 5-free is still a better option than a 3-free nail polish.

7-free has even more ingredients removed and some 7-free polishes include Pacifica Beauty,  Ella + Mila and Sienna Byron Bay. Two more chemicals have been removed from these formulas,  Parabens and Xylene. We all know parabens are best to be avoided as they are known carcinogens. Xylene  can cause nausea and dizziness and has been linked to more serious issues like liver and kidney damage. Luckily, this chemical is very rarely used in nail polishes now anyway.

Finally we have 9-free nail polishes, which are still fairly rare and JACAVA are one of the few brands that have removed these chemicals. These polishes also have Phthalates and Ethyl Tosylamide removed from the formula. Phthalates are often found in plastics and are known carcinogens and also can cause reproductive issues. Ethyl Tosylamide has antibiotic properties and has actually been banned from products in Europe due to issues with antibiotic resistance.

One of my favourite natural beauty bloggers, Kelsey from Liberty Green actually wrote an interesting blog post on another chemical that is in many polishes that are 3, 5, or even 7-free and are labelled as non-toxic. Since I read this article I’ve knocked even more brands off my list. The chemical is Benzophenone-1 and it’s found in the majority of nail polish. It’s been linked to causing cancer as well as causing issues with reproduction. I’ve now made a point of using brands that do not contain this ingredient. There’s not many of them, however, so it has really cut down what nail polish brands I’ll purchase and use. If you want to read the blog post that Kelsey wrote, then you can do so here. She has an absolutely beautiful blog and has really been a source of inspiration for me when finding new natural beauty brands


One of these brands that I’ve found and loved is Sienna Byron Bay; a beautiful range of 7-free, non-toxic nail polish that DOESN’T contain Benzophenone-1. It’s also easy to purchase in NZ or Aussie so it’s now the only polish that I’m using. I’ve become slightly obsessed with this brand lately, and you can read some of my reviews here.




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