Nail polish

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Fingernails before and after application of red nail polish

Nail polish is a lacquer that can be applied to the human fingernails or toenails to decorate and protect the nail plates. The formulation has been revised repeatedly to enhance its decorative effects and to suppress cracking or flaking. Nail polish consists of an organic polymer with various additives.[1]


Nail polish originated in China, and its use dates back to 3000 BC.[1][2] Around 600 BC, during the Zhou dynasty, the royal house preferred the colors gold and silver.[1] However, red and black eventually replaced these metallic colors as royal favorites.[1] During the Ming dynasty, nail polish was often made from a mixture that included beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, vegetable dyes, and gum Arabic.[1][2]

In Egypt, the lower classes wore pale colors, whereas high society painted their nails red.

By the turn of the 9th century, nails were tinted with scented red oils, and polished or buffed. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, people pursued a polished rather than a painted look by massaging tinted powders and creams into their nails, then buffing them shiny. One such polishing product sold around this time was Graf's Hyglo nail polish paste.


Nitrocellulose is a film-forming polymer that is the main ingredient in most nail polishes.

Nail polish consists of a film-forming polymer dissolved in a volatile organic solvent. Nitrocellulose that is dissolved in butyl acetate or ethyl acetate is common. This basic formulation is expanded to include the following:[3]

Types of polish[edit]

Base coat[edit]

This type of nail polish is a clear, milky-colored, or opaque pink polish formula that is used specifically before applying nail polish to the nail.[6] The purpose of it is to strengthen nails, restore moisture to the nail, and/or help polish adhere to the nail. Some base coats are marketed as "ridge fillers" which can create a smooth surface, and reduce the appearance the ridges that can appear on unhealthy nails or due to aging. Base coat may also help keep nails from being stained a yellowish color by colored polishes.

Top coat[edit]

This type of nail polish is a clear colored polish formula that is used specifically after applying nail polish to the nail. It forms a hardened barrier for the nail that can prevent chipping, scratching and peeling. Many top coats are marketed as "quick-drying" and, in addition to drying quickly, also help the underlying colored polish dry quickly.

Manganese violet is a typical pigment in nail polish.


Gel polish is a long-lasting variety of nail polish made up of a type of methacrylate polymer. It is painted on the nail similar to traditional nail polish, and does not dry until it is cured under an ultraviolet or ultraviolet LED lamp. While regular nail polish formulas typically last 2-7 days before chipping, gel polish can last upwards of two weeks with proper application and home care. Gel polish can be more difficult to remove than regular nail polish; it is usually gently pushed off (often with an orange wood stick) after soaking the nails in acetone for 8-15 minutes. It is not possible to remove gel polish with non-acetone nail polish remover.

Nail polish in fashion[edit]

Traditionally, nail polish started in clear, red, pink, purple, and black. Since that time, many new colors and techniques have developed, resulting in nail polish that can be found in an extremely diverse variety of colors. Beyond solid colors, nail polish has also developed an array of other designs, such as crackled, speckled, iridescent, and holographic; rhinestones or stickers are also often applied. Some types of polish are advertised to cause nail growth, make nails stronger, prevent nails from breaking, cracking and splitting, and to stop nail biting. Nail polish may be applied as one of several components in a manicure.

French manicures are manicures designed to resemble natural nails, and are characterized by natural pink base nails with white tips, making it one of the first popular and well known color schemes with nail polish. The tips of the nails are painted white while the rest of the nails are polished in a pink or a suitable nude shade. French manicures may have originated in 18th-century Paris and were popular in the 1920s and 1930s.

Social media has given rise to the nail art culture that allows users to share their pictures about their nail art. "WWD reports nail polish sales hit a record $768 million in the U.S. in 2012, a 32% gain over 2011, despite a cluttered market that seemingly sees a new launch each week."[7] Several new polishes and related products came on to the market in the second decade of the 21st century as part of the explosion of nail art, such as nail stickers (either made of nail polish or plastic), stencils, magnetic nail polish, nail pens, glitter and sequin topcoats, nail caviar (micro beads) nail polish marketed for men, scented nail polish, and color changing nail polish (some which change hue when exposed to sunshine, and ranges which change hue in response to heat).[year needed]

Nail polish in the Western World has traditionally been worn by women. Recently, men have begun to wear clear polish on their nails to protect them from breakage. In the past few years a few men have also started to wear colored nail polish on their toenails, and some even on their hands. While pastel colors such as pink are not typically worn by men, colors such as black, gun metal, silver, olive green, or brown are more often seen. This is especially true in warm climate areas where open-toed shoes are worn and can mask damaged or disfigured nails.[8]

Nail polish finishes[edit]

Nail polish

There are 13 principal nail polish finishes:[9][10]

Nail polish remover[edit]

Nail polish is removed with nail pads or nail polish remover, which is an organic solvent, but may also include oils, scents and coloring. Nail polish remover packages may include individual felt pads soaked in remover, a bottle of liquid remover that can be used with a cotton ball or cotton pad, and even containers filled with foam that can be used by inserting a finger into the container and twisting until the polish comes off.

The most common type of nail polish remover contains the volatile organic compound acetone. It is powerful and effective, but is harsh on skin and nails.[11] It can also be used to remove artificial nails, which are usually made of acrylic. Less harsh is ethyl acetate, the active ingredient in non-acetone nail polish removers, which also often contain isopropyl alcohol.[12] Ethyl acetate is generally the solvent in nail polish itself.

Acetonitrile has been used as a nail polish remover, but it is toxic and potentially carcinogenic. It has been banned in the European Economic Area for use in cosmetics since 17 March 2000.[13]


Nail polish formulations may include ingredients that cause cancer in humans, or are toxic to the central nervous system, including phthalates, toluene, and formaldehyde.[14] Manufacturers have been pressured by consumer groups to reduce or to eliminate potentially-toxic ingredients,[14] and in September 2006, several companies agreed to phase out dibutyl phthalate, which had been linked to problems in the endocrine system and increased risk of diabetes in women.[15][16] There are no universal consumer safety standards for nail polish, however, and while formaldehyde has been eliminated from some nail polish brands, others still use it.[17]

The health risks associated with nail polish are not undisputed. According to Paul Foster, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (a division of the National Institutes of Health, under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), "The amount of chemicals used in animal studies is probably a couple of hundred times higher than what you'd be exposed to from using nail polish every week or so. So the chances of any individual phthalate producing such harm [in humans] is very slim."[18]

A more serious health risk is faced by professional nail technicians, who perform manicures over a workstation known as a "nail table," on which the client’s hands rest - directly below the technician's breathing zone. In 2009, Dr. Susan Reutman, an epidemiologist with the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's Division of Applied Research and Technology, announced a federal effort to evaluate the effectiveness of downdraft vented nail tables (VNTs) in removing potential nail polish chemical and dust exposures from the technician's work area.[19] These ventilation systems have potential to reduce worker exposure to chemicals by at least 50%.[20]

According to Reutman, a growing body of scientific literature suggests that some inhaled and absorbed organic solvents found in nail salons such as glycol ethers and carbon dilsufide may be human reproductive toxicants, responsible for effects including birth defects, low birth weight, miscarriage, and preterm birth.[19]


The U.S. city of San Francisco enacted a city ordinance, publicly identifying establishments that use nail polishes free of the "toxic trio" of toluene, dibutyl phthalate and formaldehyde.[21]

Nail polish is considered a hazardous waste by some regulatory bodies such as the Los Angeles Department of Public Works.[22] Many countries have strict restrictions on sending nail polish by mail.[23][24]


  1. ^ a b c d e Toedt, John; Koza, Darrell; Cleef-Toedt, Kathleen van (2005). Chemical Composition Of Everyday Products. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-313-32579-3. 
  2. ^ a b Sherrow, Victoria (2001). For appearance' sake: The historical encyclopedia of good looks, beauty, and grooming. Phoenix: Oryx Press. p. 119. ISBN 9781573562041. 
  3. ^ Günther Schneider, Sven Gohla, Jörg Schreiber, Waltraud Kaden, Uwe Schönrock, Hartmut Schmidt-Lewerkühne, Annegret Kuschel, Xenia Petsitis, Wolfgang Pape, Hellmut Ippen and Walter Diembeck "Skin Cosmetics" in Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry 2005, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim. doi:10.1002/14356007.a24_219
  4. ^ Toedt, John; Koza, Darrell; Cleef-Toedt, Kathleen van (2005). Chemical Composition Of Everyday Products. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-313-32579-3. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Molina, Christina (31 March 2014). "How to Actually Remove Glitter Nail Polish for Good". Hearst Communications, Inc. Retrieved 2 April 2014. 
  7. ^ Sun, Feifei (2013-01-28). "Nail Polish Sales Hit Record $768 Million in U.S.". Time. Retrieved 2013-12-06. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ Mismas, Michelle. "Can you describe the different types of nail polish finishes?". All Lacquered Up. Retrieved 3 April 2014. 
  10. ^ "What is a jelly polish?". Retrieved 1 September 2014.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  11. ^ "Safety Data Sheet: Acetone" (PDF). JM Loveridge. Retrieved 2013-12-06. 
  12. ^ "Safer alternatives. Nail polish remover". Poison Control Center. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  13. ^ Twenty-Fifth Commission Directive 2000/11/EC of 10 March 2000 adapting to technical progress Annex II to Council Directive 76/768/EEC on the approximation of laws of the Member States relating to cosmetic products. OJEC L65 of 14 March 2000, pp. 22–25.
  14. ^ a b "Dangers of Nail Polish - Toxic Chemicals in your nail polish". Local World, Ltd. 1 April 2014. Retrieved 2 April 2014. With inviting names such as peaches and cream or Caramel Smoothie, you are led away from the potential dangers of these polishes, with some ingredients that are known cancer causing chemicals and those toxic to the nervous system. The top three chemicals of concern are toluene, dibutyl phthalate (dbp) and formaldehyde - the so called 'toxic trio'. 
  15. ^ Singer, Natasha (7 September 2006). "Nail Polish Makers Yield on Disputed Chemical". The New York Times. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ Simon, Pitman (30 August 2006). "Nail Polish manufacturers remove potentially harmful chemicals". Cosmetic Design USA. William Reed Business Media. 
  18. ^ Bender, Michele (2004). "Nail polish gets a healthy makeover". Health 18 (10): 34. 
  19. ^ a b Reutman, Susan (3 March 2009). "Nail Salon Table Evaluation". National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Science Blog. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 3 April 2014. 
  20. ^ Marlow, David A.; Looney, Timothy; Reutman, Susan (September 2012). "An Evaulation of Local Exhaust Ventilation Systems for Controlling Hazardous Exposures in Nail Salons (EPHB Report No. 005-164)". Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Retrieved 5 March 2013. 
  21. ^ Brown, Patricia Leigh (10 November 2010). "At Some Nail Salons, Feeling Pretty and Green". The New York Times. 
  22. ^ "What is Household Hazardous Waste (HHW)?". County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works. Retrieved 7 August 2013. 
  23. ^ "Restricted goods - personal customers: Things we can carry in UK post but with restrictions". Royal Mail. Retrieved 2013-12-06. 
  24. ^ "Restricted and Hazardous Materials". US Postal Service. Retrieved 2013-12-06. 

Further reading[edit]

External Links[edit]