Chemical-free Nails: The Safest Manicure

Beauty/Skincare, Featured Article
on April 15, 2011
iStock Photo

Jenna Hipp had a dream job, polishing the nails of celebs like Cindy Crawford and Jessica Alba for photo shoots and red carpet events—until she realized it was making her sick.

“One day in 2006, I was painting nails for a photo shoot when all of a sudden I leaned over, and my nose literally started bleeding everywhere, and all over my client,” she says. “This was not only embarrassing, but pretty scary, since nosebleeds were very rare for me.”


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A little bit of research quickly revealed that they were not uncommon for manicurists, due to the amount of time they spend inhaling fumes from nail products.

“I decided for my own health, as well as the health of my clients, that I was only going to use ‘green’ products—those free of harmful chemicals—from that moment on,” she says. “And it’s now my mission to educate others.”

Here’s the good news: In just the few years since Hipp (who now bills herself as the “green celebrity nail stylist”) made the switch, most major manufacturers of nail polish have eliminated three of those harmful chemicals—formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate (DBP).

“I can’t think of a brand sold in the United States that isn’t ‘Big 3 Free’ by now,” says Michelle Mismas, editor of, who began keeping a running list of who was eliminating the ingredients on her blog in 2007. “Once the first major brand decided to change their formula, the others followed suit.”

But green advocates in the beauty world say there’s always room for improvement. 

“I can’t urge women enough to support non-toxic beauty,” says Hipp. “We all care so much about how we look on the outside, but like they always say, it’s what’s inside that counts — so you’d better take care of it!”

Follow these guidelines to get the most eco-friendly manicure — at home or at the salon.

Beware of meaningless labels. “Many products tout that they’re ‘green’ without actually being so,” Hipp says. “There are no official rules or guidelines to make products qualify for such a label.” Bypass words like “green,” “organic,” “natural” or “vegan,” and check labels for specific ingredients. In addition to avoiding the “Big 3,” steer clear of formulas with formaldehyde resin and camphor.

Don’t shy away from traditional brands. These days you don’t have to go to the health food store to ensure you’re getting a safer formula. Drugstore favorites Revlon, Sally Hansen and Wet ‘N’ Wild, as well as salon brands Zoya and Rescue Beauty Lounge are all 4-free, meaning they’ve also eliminated formaldehyde resin.  With that in mind, be wary of companies that seem to be positioning themselves as a more “pure” alternative to familiar brands. “At the end of the day, there are still a lot of chemicals in nail polish,” Mismas says.

Take it off your way. Though there’s no evidence that acetone, the ingredient in most nail polish removers, is harmful to your skin, some people prefer gentler formulas on their nails and cuticles. Try a variety to see what works best for your skin and your routine. “Some people like soy nail polish removers, but I’m not a big fan because I end up getting nail polish all over my skin,” says Mismas. She prefers acetone’s efficiency since she polishes daily, but also recommends Nubar’s cucumber-scented non-acetone remover.

Help nudge your salon forward. Not a DIYer? There’s nothing wrong with preferring to leave your mani-pedi to a pro. Just be aware that salons and spas don’t update their stock very often, and may not have the latest formulas and eco-friendly products. “If your local salon doesn’t carry green treatments and lacquer, ask them to please replace their formulas with healthier options,” suggests Hipp. “Or even better, pack a little bag of your own to bring with you.” Hint: If you choose an OPI polish at the salon, take a quick peek at the bottom. A label with green text means it’s the newer, Big 3 Free formula.

Get a safe mani that lasts. Many salons are touting “gel manicures” (marked under the names “Axxium” or “Shellac”) as long-lasting alternatives to acrylic nails. But the process involves curing under a UV lamp. A safer bet—and even more “green” than nail polish itself — is nail stickers like the new Sally Hansen Salon Effects and Incoco Dry Nail Appliqués. Both are available at drugstores, are easy to apply at home and last for up to a week.

“There’s a coating in between the polish and your nail,” says Mismas. “They’re a really great alternative to other nail treatments.”

Have more suggestions for eco-friendly manis and pedis? Share them in the comments section.