What does three free mean? What does five free mean?

If you have ever sniffed a bottle of nail polish you would know it isn’t flowers and unicorn tears – nail polish is packed full of serious chemicals. Not all chemicals are created equal though, and some have been banned for almost a decade in certain parts of the world.

You may have heard the expressions Three Free or Five Free bandied around, but what does it mean and why is it a big deal? These are the chemicals you don’t want to see on your ingredient list.

The Big Three:

Formaldehyde is most commonly used as a preservative or a sterilizer. You may have also seen it in movies, as it is also used to embalm bodies. Its adhesive properties mean it is used in plywood and particle board, and in the beauty world it is often added to nail hardeners. While not used in every nail polish, it was and is used in nail hardening products, and by brands who wanted to beef up their color collection with ‘added nail hardeners’ (e.g. brands that claim base coat, top coat, and color in one). Formaldehyde is also a known carcinogen.

Dibutyl Phthalate
Commonly referred to as DBP, this chemical is used to make plastics flexible. It is used in nail polish to ward off chips and cracks. It is also toxic to the reproductive system, particularly when used by pregnant women.

Toluene is added to nail polish so that it goes on smoothly. Disturbingly, it is also included in gasoline as an octane booster, and can be used as a raw material to create TNT. Kaboom. Toluene irritates the nervous system, and can cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea.

The Big Five:

The above three, plus…

Formaldehyde Resin
Formaldehyde Resin isn’t as nasty as Formaldehyde, but it is still an allergen and can cause contact dermatitis. The resin is what makes nail polish hard and makes it stick to the nail.

Camphor can cause liver damage, and has been linked to seizures when ingested. Camphor is a plasticizer that makes polish flexible.

There has been a big movement over the last decade to take these nasty chemicals out of those little colored bottles, starting when the European Union banned their use in cosmetic products, and continuing a few years later when big players like OPI and Essie agreed to take them off their ingredient list. All that said, these ingredients are still sitting in products on shelves in drug stores, sometimes labelled and sometimes not, thanks to an FDA that lacks the manpower necessary to enforce strict government testing. This is where new industry players are stepping up and taking a more ethical approach, to the applause of consumers.

Richard Annington, Founder of Bondi NY, says, “In a world where too many toxins are being attributed to cancer, reproductive issues and many other health concerns, something as simple as nail polish should not be a contributor to these problems. If there is a way to produce long lasting, fashion forward nail polish, manufacturers need to be using it and putting the long term health of their customers ahead of their shareholders”.

Heather Snodgrass-Brine, Founder and Creative Director of Hello Darling, agrees, “We have a company directive of “do no harm”, so the health & safety of the people who make our product, the nail techs who are using it every day, and our direct consumers are of the utmost importance to us.”

Not only are these brands, both rising stars in the industry, concerned with their consumers health, but they are also mindful of the wider environmental impact their business is having. Snodgrass-Brine adds, “Ten years ago there was a US Geological Survey which showed that 64% of the 139 streams studies contained plasticisers and possibly phthalates which are two of the most common ingredients in nail polish. We didn’t want to contribute to that problem, which is why our formula is created with low-toxicity and biodegradable ingredients.”

While the FDA continues to drag their heels on thorough testing, it’s up to us as consumers to educate ourselves and purchase brands that have made their stance on 3 Free and 5 Free known. Something to consider next time you’re at the salon..

Elise Wright

Elise is a social media strategist from Sydney, now living in NYC, who has a long standing love affair with the beauty industry- especially the nail industry!

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed