What’s in Your Nail Polish

Whether you prefer a natural-looking manicure or a full-on glitter fest, Vernis à ongles can be the finishing touch to your look. But how much do you know about the product you use?

This brand uses recycled plastic caps and FSC-certified paperboard boxes, plus a ten-free formula that works well without a base coat or topcoat.


The ancient Chinese were pioneers in nail polish; they painted their nails in bright colors to symbolize social status. This trend spread across India and Africa, where women immersed their fingers in henna, a reddish-brown dye extracted from flowering plants. Cleopatra’s nails are thought to be henna-colored, as are other mummified fingernails from the period. Nail polish re-appeared in Europe during the renaissance, but it wasn’t as popular as it is now.

Today, nail polish contains a few key ingredients that help it stay on your nails: nitrocellulose, resins and plasticizers, pigments, and solvents. Resins provide strength and a glossy shine to the film of a nail polish, while plasticizers keep it from cracking and chipping. Camphor is a common plasticizer. Solvents are used to dissolve the other ingredients, and then evaporate after application. The choice of solvents determines the thickness and time it takes for a nail polish to dry. Among the more problematic solvents are benzophenones (the CAS number of which is 131-56-6). This chemical is listed as a carcinogen by the state of California.


The chemistry of nail polish involves multiple ingredients, depending on the desired outcome. For example, a pearlescent shade requires more than pigments, it also needs mica or finely ground titanium to add the shimmer. To achieve the smooth film that a nail polish needs, a chemical called nitrocellulose is needed. This ingredient is a liquid mixed with cotton fibers that are ground so small they are almost invisible.

Resins and plasticizers give nail polish a hard, glossy finish. They are often made of polymers, such as tosylamide-formaldehyde resin or dilauryl phthalate. Plasticizers also aid in polish flexibility, preventing cracking and chipping. One common plasticizer is benzophenone-1, which has been linked to changes in hormone regulation and reproductive toxicity.

Nail polish also contains solvents that keep the other ingredients dissolved during application and then evaporate into air. The type and amount of solvent used determines how thick or thin the nail polish will be and how long it takes to dry.


Nail polish is a thick coating that covers the nails, and also protects them from external factors like cracking. It comes in various colors and finishes. Nail polishes are usually categorized as cosmetics by the FDA, but nail products intended to treat medical conditions such as nail fungus are regulated as drugs.

The precise formula of nail polish is a proprietary secret, but basic ingredients include film-forming agents, resins and plasticizers, solvents and coloring agents. The exact formulation depends on the choices made by chemists and chemical engineers in research and development.

Apply a base coat to your nails, and let it dry before applying color. Generally, two coats of nail polish give the best results. Make sure to keep the brush thin and avoid over-applying.

To apply the polish, make three strokes with the brush on each nail, keeping it as close to the cuticle as possible. Some nail polishes have a special clear top coat, which can help prevent staining and extend the lifespan of the manicure.


You can remove gel nail polish at home by following some simple steps. You’ll need acetone (any remover with an acetone content of 60 per cent or more will work), cotton balls and tin foil. Make sure to line your sink or workspace with a towel, and use a cuticle pusher instead of an orange stick (these can damage the natural nail).

Ksenia McAnulty, owner of London nail salon Selfish, a Treatwellpartner salon, suggests filing down the top layer of Builder Gel or CND Shellac nails before applying the acetone. “This breaks the seal of the polish and makes it easier to take off,” she says.

If you have a sensitive nose, try mixing water and vinegar instead of acetone. You can also soak your nails in warm water mixed with hydrogen peroxide or use a slice of lemon to break down the polish and speed up removal. Once the nail polish is removed, moisturize your nails and skin with cuticle oil to prevent dryness.

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