Sunday, February 5, 2012

Science! Sunday: The Deal with Three-Free + Zoya Pandora

Over the past few years it seems like more and more of my new polishes feature a more prominent list of what they don’t contain than what they do. I’ve seen a couple articles about the three-free formulations, but they seem to have conflicting messages - everything from chemicals are no big deal to total alarmist, polish kills! As a scientist and a nail polish addict (and a nerd) I decided to do a little research and figure out what the real deal is with three-free formulas.

Basic Components of Nail Polish

Before we talk about these ingredients, it might be helpful to understand what all goes into nail polish in the first place. The base ingredient in all polishes is a film forming agent, typically nitrocellulose. Its job is to form a smooth, tough film on the nail. This film doesn’t stick to the nail very well on its own, so an adhesive resin must be added to help the polish stay on the nail when it dries. Chemicals called plasticizers help to increase the glossiness and flexibility of the dried polish. All of these ingredients are dissolved in a liquid solvent and then mixed with the fun stuff - pigments and glitter! While different companies may use different amounts and types, all polishes contain some variation of these ingredients.

Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP)

Dibuttyl phthalate (DBP) is a plasticizer, originally used for its ability to help prevent cracking and chipping, and is probably the worst of the three-free offenders. Mild exposure to DBP vapor can cause eye and respiratory irritation, long-term exposure is linked birth defects and brain damage in adults. Young children exposed to moderate levels DBP are at risk for liver and kidney failure as well as delayed mental development - the United States banned the use of DBP in children’s toys in 2008. The European Union banned the use of DBP in cosmetics in 2004, and since then the majority of major polish companies have replaced this nasty chemical with safer alternatives.


Toluene is a solvent sometimes used to help polish ingredients dissolve evenly and apply smoothly. It is one of the chemicals that makes paint huffing dangerous - when inhaled in moderate amounts it can cause memory loss, shaking, hearing and vision impairment, and even death. That said, you’re not going to get anywhere close to that level of exposure painting your nails - in 2006 the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Products declared that toluene exposure during nail polish application did not pose a health risk. Though the risk is minimal, many companies have opted to replace toluene with other solvents in their formulas.


The image commonly associated with formaldehyde is the smelly (and highly toxic) liquid, formalin, used in embalming dead bodies - yuck! The the form used in nail polish is actually the much friendlier tosylamide-formaldehyde resin. As a resin, it works to help the polish stick to the nail and last longer. Though the resin doesn’t have the health risks associated with its more famous cousin, allergic reactions are common and it can cause irritation for up to three days after the polish is applied. Unless you’ve got an allergy there’s really not much risk from formaldehyde resin, but with the ugly name association it’s become a popular piece of the three-free movement.


Though not one of the main three-free ingredients, this guy is also showing up on a lot of “free” lists. Camphor is another plasticizer that is commonly paired with nitrocellulose. If large amounts are swallowed it is poisonous, causing seizures and spasming, and if very large amounts are applied to the skin it can cause liver failure. However, a study at the University of Arizona found that even when multiple patches of the chemical were applied directly to the skin for up to 8 hours, blood levels of camphor were nowhere near toxic. Basically, you’re not going to get camphor poisoning from applying a polish to your nails, but there are less toxic alternatives available and many companies are opting to take the safe route.

In Summary...

The ingredients left out of three-free polishes have the potential to be pretty awful, but the reality is you should staying well within safe levels during a normal manicure. However, I still think it’s worth supporting brands that strive for the safest possible ingredients - their manufacturing employees face much higher exposure risks and when these chemicals are in use in factories they frequently end up back in the environment. Plus, just try a Zoya or Sinful Colors polish to see how fantastic formulas can be without the use of any potentially harmful nasties! Here I’ve swatched Zoya’s Pandora from the Touch Collection (baby bottle from Birchbox!).

Though I usually go for brighter colors, this nude has become one of my favorite polishes. I always get so many compliments whenever I wear it! The formula is wonderful and smooth, and the color is just right for my skin tone. I’ve got three coats here, but you could really be fine with two.

What are your thoughts on three-free polish formulas? Do you have any weird polish/ nail care questions you’d like answered on Science! Sunday? Let me know :)

xoxo Maggie

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