12 Shades of Non-Toxic Nude Nail Polish for Neutral Manicures
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
These are some of the cleanest nude polishes to choose from.
The blush trend has given way to minimalist-approved nude aesthetics—and manicures to match. Trend-conscious, neutral manis take extra-long to grow out, chips in the polish only show minimally, and their subtlety lends an understated sophistication to your digits—unless, of course, you're going for thrills, in which case you can always deck them out in sparkles. Depending on your skin tone, you can select shades to make your nails pop, or to elongate the fingers the same way nude-colored heels can make legs look longer. But before painting your nails, know that some believe there are inherent in the application of nail polish.
Some research seems to link chemicals pervasively used in the formulation of nail polish to health outcomes in the body that range from endocrine- and hormone disruption, to birth defects, to neurotoxicity, and cancer. The idea is that when we are exposed to these toxins over the long-term, our body's repeated absorption and accumulation builds up to levels with health-harming consequences. The thing is, our nails are equipped with a protective nail plate that is largely impermeable. The main concern is that when nail care is practiced improperly (i.e., by a non-skilled technician or DIY), the use of corrosive adhesives (i.e., nail glue) or damaging removal processes (such as from gel manicures) can damage the nail plate, rendering your body vulnerable to the absorption of unregulated chemicals. Speaking personally, I have done serious disaster to the surface of my nails, but wholeheartedly trust skilled manicurists like Mazz Hanna.
The issue stems from our political roots. The United States loves to allow corporations to self-regulate in the interest of a healthy economy, but profits-driven enterprises may take a more lenient approach to notions of personal safety than do health-conscious consumers. Conflicting reports by experts, each of whom interpret studies with a unique understanding, and ambiguous labeling by some beauty brands, has made an already challenging situation hard to navigate. Cosmetic chemists that I have spoken to disagree on the safety of nail polish point blank. Dr. Nicole Acevedo, founder of the consulting firm Elavo Mundi Solutions LLC, whom I interviewed for this piece on Nécessité, does not believe that any nail polish on the market is currently "safe." However, when I interviewed cosmetic chemist Valerie George, co-host of The Beauty Brains, for this piece on Glam.com, she reassured me that the nail plate is virtually impermeable to anything other than water, hence her belief that nail polish is safe.
I personally do paint my nails with conventional polish, and have been making more of an effort to nourish he health of my nail by incorporating cuticle oil. (A healthy cuticle leads to a healthy nail!) But in my personal experience, gel manicures have left the state of my nails in literal tatters. Why? Because not all of us have access to skilled nail technicians that use only the highest quality products, or possess the time and knowledge of how to remove gel, acrylics, etc., safely. So while the nail plate is a formidable, protective bio-barrier that keeps damaging ingredients out of the bloodstream, damage to the nail plate is problematic and potentially widespread. Once the nail plate is corroded or compromised, the chemical components of our polish can more easily seep into the bloodstream for better or worse.
Remember that exposure via nail products imparts such tiny amounts of these chemicals that they may truly be inconsequential to your health. Unless you are chronically exposed over the long term, as is the case with professional nail artists and manicurists, or you suffer from an underlying health condition that renders you more vulnerable, this truly may not be of concern for you. But some seek to minimize exposure to toxins in our lifestyles—like those of us with autoimmune conditions, chronic illness, or that are pregnant/nursing—to whom this information may pose concerns. Because of this, as well as awareness that the US' list of banned ingredients pales in comparison to our neighbors across the pond, beauty brands have begun responding.
As you have undoubtedly seen, nail care lines have responded to calls for clean polish by labelling their formulas 'non-toxic,' specified as 'x-free.' This intimates that they are free of some of the growing list of ingredients that have come under scrutiny. Some of them are already banned in the European Union, such as the 'toxic trio' — namely, DBP, formaldehyde, and toluene. One of the replacements for DBP, TPHP, has since been linked to endocrine-disruption and has been added to the list of ingredients that brands are eliminating.
The challenge with these labels comes down to labeling ambiguity. Labeling ambiguity within the realm of nail polish means that there is absolutely no guarantee that a 10-free polish is any "safer" than a 5-free because there is no legal consensus as to which ingredients are excluded. (Not to mention, there is no legal definition for terms like clean, natural, or non-toxic!) Because of this regulatory loophole's inconsistency in labels (an issue I talked about on Fashionista with regards to animal testing), clean-conscious consumers must learn how to vet brands ourselves by becoming familiar with the names of questionable ingredients, checking ingredients' lists to ensure that they are not present in formulas, or seeking out brands that emphasize ingredient transparency.
In a perfect world, nail polish that is labeled, "3-Free," "5-Free," "7-Free," "9-Free," "10-Free," or even "13-free" would omit the questionable ingredients below. There is also limited research and limited access to the studies indicating the toxicity of said ingredients. For instance, much of the information below comes from consumer watch groups like the EWG; however, some editors believe that these resources resort to fear-mongering. But it's what we have access to at this point, so it's what I'm reporting on.
Here are some of the most frequently named ingredients in polish with links to some resources you can use to make informed decisions for yourselves. If you have a cosmetic chemist on-call, reach out. Remember that experts emphasize that the nail plate's integrity is paramount; with an intact nail plate, you should theoretically not be at risk of dermal absorption. If you have a skilled nail technician to remove your gel polish or acrylics, your nail plate is likely intact!
Toxic Trio: Experts have indicated that formulas should omit DBP (the phthalate dibutyl phthalate), toluene, and formaldehyde, a carcinogen. These were the first to be banned in the EU back in 2004, and California announced plans to ban toluene back in 2019.
Formaldehyde resin and camphor are two additional ingredients with allergy warnings and reported links to organic toxicity/liver damage.
TPHP, or triphenyl phosphate, is a plasticizer that was used as a replacement ingredient for DBP but that was later found to linked to endocrine/hormone disruption, and more. Research indicates that the endocrine-disrupter was absorbed dermally here and reported on here, but this was likely due to nail plate corrosion.
Ethyl tosylamide can reportedly cause respiratory tract damage, as well as eye and skin damage, while Xylene's symptoms range from dizziness and dermatitis to vomiting.
Many parabens—which are used as preservatives—are considered carcinogenic, making them yet another red flag for clean beauty purists.
Styrene Acrylates Copolymer: Technically this additive is safe because it cannot be absorbed through the skin, but I have read on Safe Cosmetics that it runs the risk of being contaminated with styrene. If this is true, know that styrene is a carcinogen found in fragrances that is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen." (Styrene acrylates copolymer is very common, even found in lip products.)
As for your manicures, remember, always, that the notion of safety is highly personal: When my nail plate is healthy and intact, I feel comfortable using varnish. I personally avoid gel because of my difficulty removing them in the past, as well as how quickly my nails grow—more often than not, my nails break when I get gel because the end becomes too substantial before two weeks have passed. My main concern is that our regulatory laws for the beauty industry more faithfully reflect the information that consumers are seeking. I think labeling uniformity and the accessibility of evidence-based information should be made available to all.
Because nude manicures are my favorite, minimalist-friendly nail trend to rock, here are some of my favorite nude shades and non-toxic brands to shop from below.
This Aussie brand makes the "cleanest" nail polish formula I have found to date and is free of benzophenone-1 (read more here). Barefoot Dancer (above) is sold out on Petit Vour, but you can look at the shade Helena for a warmer neutral shade. If you shop directly from their site, the Peaceful Pack contains three beautiful, neutral options.
The vegan nail polish line—which comes in an extended range of shades—launched a five-piece Naturally Nude set that proves that not all nudes are the same. You also don't want to miss their Gel Genius Top Coat ($20) for serious gloss to finish off the look. Note that the line does contain benzophenone-1 and styrene copolymer acrylates, but is free of the other ingredients listed above.
Zoya's line of nail polishes do contain benzophenon-1, but remain one of the cleanest nail polish formulations available with a truly admirable shade range.
Using a Wes Anderson film-inspired color palette, indie nail polish brand Bess & Color's line includes this taupe shade, 'The Academy.' For a pinker-neutral shade, check out the shade 'Grand Budapest.' The 10-free line excludes the most controversial culprits, but contains benzophenone-1. Read more here.
Orly is another innovator in the world of non-toxic nail polish with in-house labs to ensure the purity of their ingredients (which becomes an issue when brands outsource). Their formulas are not benzophenone-free, but their breathable line is 12-free and, as always, fantastic quality. Orly is without a doubt one of my favorite nail brands, not to mention being a true leader and innovator in the nail care space. They have been formulating to ensure the well-being of nail technicians and salon workers for years, and they have devoted tremendous resources for doing so. This is a brand that I very much support.
Shimmery neutrals help spice up the look, but still fall within the range of a minimalist-approved color palette. I often saw this brand on the shelves often when I lived in Paris, France. Because brands that are sold in the EU legally adhere to much more stringent regulations regarding ingredient safety to begin with, it is a reassuring way to shop a French brand stateside. Plus, I miss Paris!
This line is vegan, cruelty-free, and an indie favorite hailing from NYC. No. 6 is a cool, creamy shade with a lilac undertone. For more warmth, No. 7 is a nice rosy-beige. Their excluded ingredients include TPHP, DBP, toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide, parabens, and tert-butyl hydroperoxide.
This champagne shimmer leaves you with a little sparkle, yet does so in a refreshingly neutral shade to tone it down.
This nude hue was created as part of the brand's collaboration with the viral TikTokers, Charli and Dixie D'Amelio's Coastal Craze set. The fourteen ingredients they exclude can be found on the brand's Nope List.
Mischo Beauty Worthy ($18)
Another perk to shopping this fantastic line is that they are Black-owned. You can deck out your nails while putting your values for social justice into action when you shop this lovely line.
I personally enjoy the cheeky and fun branding with this line, as well as their vegan, 10-free formulas. Tactful Denial is more of a beige-meets-pink, but Virgin? has a peachier hue if you're into warmth.
The Nashville-based line was developed by a podiatrist, Dr. Cary Gannon. It is also vegan, cruelty-free, and gluten-free.
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