Nailing It: Picking the Right Polish

I skimmed the L.A. Times story in Sunday’s paper with interest: a new nail salon was opened that sounded like my kinda place. The structure was described as “eco-friendly,” “a completely green structure” and a “safe environment.” Fantastic, I thought. Finally.

But I noted that it was an OPI nail salon and I had long ago stopped using nail products by OPI. When I learned about the dangers of nail polish a few years ago, I began to bring my own toxic-free products with me to nail salons. Then I began to go to salons less frequently because of the fumes I had to inhale while inside those walls (wondering every time I sat in the chair about how the health of the nail technician could be compromised). OPI is a nail salon favorite but I read that the company was reportedly reluctant to remove the big, bad three chemicals found in nail products: formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). For several years, experts have identified these three chemicals, commonly used in nail polish, as harmful; formaldehyde is a known carcinogen as well as a skin and respiratory irritant, while toluene and DBP are known or suspected reproductive developmental toxins.

The European Union (EU) has banned the use of these three ingredients in nail (and other) products and I had heard that OPI complied with the EU rules for the products they made for overseas sales—but they continued to use the chemicals in U.S. products. Hold on. Now OPI was getting attention for its new eco-friendly salon? This felt like a case of “green-washing” to me, with OPI riding the environmental wave. Fitting a building with solar panels or stocking your bathroom with Seventh Generation toilet paper does not make a company green. What about the nail polish with the toxic chemicals?

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics targeted the company, along with many others, imploring them to make changes to their products and I went online to find that OPI finally decided to reformulate its products to eliminate these ingredients. The L.A. Times story quoted someone from OPI as saying that because they’re a chemical company, they felt they should give back. I’d never want to fault someone for doing the right thing and I like to give credit to those who see the light, but I’d much rather give my business to companies that don’t make me think twice. Luckily, there are better choices out there—and more every day. Find some of them here.

Stef McDonald


Janice P.
Janice P9 years ago

When I was growing up, a woman always polished her nails to have that "finished" look. I kept my nails polished until about 13 years ago, when I quit working, to take care of my parents. (I didn't have time to do my nails any longer.) But, what a difference! I noticed that my nails had become SO yellow. Now, they look healthy again. I'm glad I didn't have time to polish them. And that doesn't include the odor issue. Thanks for the article.

Elaine Dixon
Elaine Dixon9 years ago

I don't know what is in nail polish but it was worth reading about,

Linda J.
Linda J9 years ago


Genevieve R.
Genevieve R.10 years ago

Thanks for your article Stef! People should certainly know about OPI's early reluctance to get rid of chemicals for its U.S. customers. Sure there's the toxic trio that was removed, but what about all the other chemicals going into their products? And without federal regulation of cosmetics and body care, what else is lurking beyond nail polish? Toxic is toxic, even though it's washed in green. Buyer beware. Learn more at

Genevieve R.
Genevieve R.10 years ago

Thanks Stef for this article. Toxic is toxic, even washed in green. Thank you for highlighting OPI's intial reluctance to change. They may have gotten the toxic trio outta there, but what other stuff lurks in their products? And without proper federal regulation of cosmetics and body care, what kind of long-term health effects are we being subjected to? I say, support the companies who are doing the right thing by not using toxic chemicals and looking for safer alternatives, rather than those shilling toxic wares in "green" spaces. Let's not shop our way out of a problem ladies! This is a good resource:

Linda R.
Linda R.10 years ago

Vanity has its price.

Barbcat Knight
Barb Knight10 years ago

I'd like to commend Stef McDonald for this article. I've been overpowered by the smell of fingernail polish in salons. I've always wondered what the heck goes into nail polish.

I once took a night class at UNC Asheville, NC where I live, and the room across the hall had this unbelievable, gag-inducing, smell. Come to find out they were enbalming dead bodies, sometimes animals, and the smell was enbalming fluid and formaldehyde. To learn that there were dead bodies across the hall was bad enough, but having to endure the smell was unbearable, especially after finding out they sometimes enbalmed animals. I freaked out! Thank you Stef for this article. I'll check out those eco-friendly nail polishes right away. =)

Evgenia F.
Evgenia F10 years ago

I am not sure what this article is arguing. They did remove the toxic chemicals, so you don't trust them because they used to have them before 2006? And they did produce safer nail polish for Europe since the legislation there is more strict. So what have we learned from all this? It takes a variety of forces to come together for change, one of them being stricter legislation.

There is a lot of greenwashing going on these days but there is also a sort of "witch hunt" of anything and anyone who is not 100% vegan and green. Change happens in increments and with true knowledge.

Danielle L.
Danielle L10 years ago

I will not use nail polish bcs I was just diagnosed with formaldehyde toxicity. I wont use nail polish or hair color and all my beauty products are completely natural not just organic but 100% vegan. You wont believe what formaldehyde is in, its used as a preservative in nearly every product on our selves in the US., shampoos, conditioners, lotion, sunscreen, facewash, bodywash, soaps, hair products, laudry detergent, etc. A known carcinogen and we come in contact every day several times. I dont think people realize its dangers. Even baby products are contaminated with formaldehyde and most products it is not listed as "formaldehyde" but instead names such as DMDM hydantoin.

Melodie Waldron
Melodie Waldron10 years ago

Thank you, Stef!