Nail Varnish Ingredients – What’s Really in There?

By Inspirationail

Varnish IngredientsNail varnish is a modern 20th century product, which makes it stand alone from most cosmetics that can be traced back to ancient roots. In fact, varnish is the product of a largely chemical, industrial age and that tends to show in conventional ingredients.

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We talk a lot about choosing brands that respect the environment, their customers and themselves. These are the brands that source, manufacture and distribute in a more environmentally friendly manner. It’s important to consider everyone & everything around you before you make any purchase, especially one that is riddled with chemicals and clearly not good for you.

While formulas will vary by brand and product, there are a few specifically dangerous ingredients that can often be found in conventional nail polish.

Repeat Offenders

For something that is supposed to make you feel & look more beautiful, the names of these ingredients kind of scare us. As we said above, no two varnish formulas are the same (and some are highly guarded trade secrets). The ingredients below may not be in all nail varnish recipes, but are still commonly found. We’ve listed a little about each one, some of their other uses, what to look for (and avoid) when reading labels and some dangers associated with them.

Film Forming Agents

Film Forming Agents

This is the primary ingredient in many conventional polishes and acts as a hardening agent by creating a film over the nail. Unfortunately film forming agents don’t stick to the nail, so they require even more chemicals to do their job.

Also used to for: Making dynamite, gunpowder, laquers & paints.

What to avoid: Generally called nitrocellulose (or cellulose nitrate cotton).

The Danger: Highly flammable and cause varnish to be dangerous near any type of open flame.

Synthetic Resins & Plasticizers

Synthetic Resins & Plasticizers

This is one ingredient that varies largely depending on the varnish formula, and is used to improve flexibility and add resistance to soap & water.

Also used for: Making electrical cables, concrete, adhesives, rubber & plastic products and for softening PVC.

What to avoid: Dibutyl pathalate or DBP.

The Danger: Exposure to this type of toxin can affect thyroid function & cause reproductive problems in the fetus of pregnant women.



Solvents hold the entire toxic mix together while in liquid form inside the bottle. One or more solvent may be employed to do the job and some of them can double as a plasticizer.

Also used for: Household, industrial & automotive cleaners, paints & thinners and dry cleaning.

What to avoid: Toluene and (not as much anymore) acetone.

The Danger: Breathing the noxious fumes can cause problems in the nervous system and irritation of the eyes, throat and lungs. Can also be highly flammable.

Colouring Agents

Colouring Agents

While there are great trends leaning toward more natural pigments, colour is still the most important part of every varnish. A wide variety of colourings & dyes are used to create the rainbow and often pigments are selected based on their ability to mix well with solvents – not how healthy they are for human nails.

Also used for: Colouring agents are used for everything from food to cosmetics to pharmaceuticals.

What to avoid: They can be mineral components such as coal tar or aluminum powder, natural ingredients like carmine (ground up insect) or other colours created through a variety of chemical means.

The Danger: While we couldn’t find anything specifically dangerous about colouring agents. It really depends on their source and creative naming makes them even more difficult to pin down.



These are tiny reflective materials that create many of the shimmering and glimmering varnish effects. We love the look and this isn’t a particularly dangerous ingredient. However it should be noted that it must be mined from the earth and there is rarely anything environmentally friendly about a mined product.

Also used for: Making mildly abrasive tooth paste, automotive paint and insulator for concrete block.

What to avoid: Often simply called mica, can be coated in titanium dioxide.

The Danger: Known as bioaccumulators which means they tend to accumulate in the bodies of mammals – and that just sounds gross.

Fish Scales

Fish Scales

Fish scales are widely used in cosmetics to create all of those beautiful pearlescent, opalescent and iridescent colours. This is obviously an animal product and some people will have a problem with that. Often women don’t even know, but If it’s shimmering, glimmering, glowing, pearly or opal it’s probably got fish scales in it.

The Danger: While it’s not necessarily a danger for you, it’s sure rotten for the fish!

Our Advice

Read labels on everything…it’s as simple as that. If you know what you don’t want in your cosmetics it’s a lot easier to rule brands out quickly. We say, opt for safer water-based formulas created specifically for pregnant women and children – & we’ve got a great range of safer minded brands in our store.

*It should be noted that we aren’t doctors (or scientists) and the list above is provided for informative purposes only. Ask your doctor (or a scientist) about how specific chemicals or ingredients may affect you.


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