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 fingers or toe nails to decorate and protect the nail plate. 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.

After the creation of automobile paint, Cutex produced the first modern nail polish in 1917.[3][not specific enough to verify] In 1932, the Charles Revson Company (later Revlon) produced their first nail polish. Once nail polish was refined, it was often used in the place of gloves to cover up the grime underneath finger and toe nails.[4][not in citation given]


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:[5]

Types of polish[edit]

Base coat[edit]

This type of nail polish is a clear or milky-colored polish formula that is used specifically before applying nail polish to the nail. 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 nail polish is a long-lasting type of nail polish. It is painted on the nail like a regular polish, and does not dry until it is "set" under an ultraviolet or LED lamp. While regular nail polish formulas typically last 2-7 days before chipping, gel polish lasts around two weeks on most. Gel polish can be more difficult to remove than regular nail polish; it is usually scraped off after soaking the nails in acetone for 5-10 minutes. It is not possible to remove gel polish with non-acetone nail polish remover.

Nail polish in fashion[edit]

Nail polish

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 and colors, such as nail polish stamps, crackled, magnetic, nail polish strips and stickers; fake rhinestones 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), "crackle" nail polish, magnetic nail polish, nail polish marketed for men, and nail decorations.

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, which makes them more brittle.[8] It can also be used to remove artificial nails, which are usually made of acrylic. Less toxic is ethyl acetate, the active ingredient in non-acetone nail polish removers, which also often contain isopropyl alcohol.[9] 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.[10]


"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," says Paul Foster, PhD, a senior fellow at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "So the chances of any individual phthalate producing such harm is very slim."[11]

Nail polish makers are under pressure to reduce or to eliminate toxic ingredients, including phthalates, toluene, and formaldehyde. In September 2006, several makers agreed to phase out dibutyl phthalate, which has been linked to problems in the endocrine system and also to a raised risk of diabetes in women, in updated formulations.[12] [13]Some makers eliminated formaldehyde from their products, others still use it.[14]

In order to reduce the exposures of nail salon workers to the potentially dangerous chemicals found in nail polish, nail tables equipped with local exhaust ventilation have been used in nail salons.[15] These ventilation systems have potential to reduce worker exposure to chemicals by at least 50%.[16]


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.[17]

Nail polish is considered a hazardous waste by some regulatory bodies such as the Los Angeles Department of Public Works.[18] Many countries have strict restrictions on sending nail polish by mail.[19][20]


  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. ^ [1][not specific enough to verify]
  4. ^ Trumble, Angus. "The History of Nail Polish". Wonders & Marvels. 
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ Sun, Feifei (2013-01-28). "Nail Polish Sales Hit Record $768 Million in U.S.". Time. Retrieved 2013-12-06. 
  8. ^ "Safety Data Sheet: Acetone" (PDF). JM Loveridge. Retrieved 2013-12-06. 
  9. ^ "Safer alternatives. Nail polish remover". Poison Control Center. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Bender, Michele (2004). "Nail polish gets a healthy makeover". Health 18 (10): 34. 
  12. ^ Singer, Natasha (7 September 2006). "Nail Polish Makers Yield on Disputed Chemical". The New York Times. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Simon, Pitman (30 August 2006). "Nail Polish manufacturers remove potentially harmful chemicals". Cosmetic Design USA. William Reed Business Media. 
  15. ^ Reutman, Susan (10 March 2010). "Nail Salon Table Evaluation". Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
  16. ^ 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. 
  17. ^ Brown, Patricia Leigh (10 November 2010). "At Some Nail Salons, Feeling Pretty and Green". The New York Times. 
  18. ^ "What is Household Hazardous Waste (HHW)?". County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works. Retrieved 7 August 2013. 
  19. ^ "Restricted goods - personal customers: Things we can carry in UK post but with restrictions". Royal Mail. Retrieved 2013-12-06. 
  20. ^ "Restircted and Hazardous Materials". US Postal Service. Retrieved 2013-12-06. 

Further reading[edit]