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How is Nail Polish Actually Made?

Have you ever wondered just how a nail polish is made and how it actually works like a nail polish should work? In today’s video and blog post we are going to tell you how this is done and how a conventional nail polish will differ to a “free from” or more “natural” nail polish. Like with most beauty products, also with nail polish it’s important to understand what the function of the product is and what it needs to do in order for it to be a good quality nail polish. When you understand the function, then you can better understand the ingredients and components that the nail polish is made with. We hope you enjoy today’s video and learn something new! 

How is Nail Polish Actually Made?

A while ago we made a video and blog post about why a “natural” nail polish is pretty much impossible to make and this is simply due to the nature of nail polish and what we all expect from one when it comes to performance. However, there are nail polishes which do use more harsh (even toxic) ingredients that are definitely worth avoiding. When it comes to nail polish and you want to use more natural products, it’s about finding the most natural and sustainable option possible which also includes the least amount of toxic/harmful ingredients possible. Like with most beauty products, with nail polish there is no “perfect” but there are definitely better options than the conventional nail polishes which still include harsh (and even toxic) ingredients in them.  

In this blog post (and video above) we talk about that the components that generally every nail polish needs in order for it to work. We will at times be comparing “conventional” & “free from” nail polishes. With “conventional” we mean any of those nail polish (brands) that you can find in any drugstore and any nail polishes that don’t use any “free from” claims. With “free from” nail polishes we talk about any of the nail polishes that use a “free from” claim (e.g. 5 Free, 7 Free, 10 Free, etc.) or describe or claim their nail polish to be “natural”. 

Please keep in mind though that if any nail polish (brand) claims to be natural, this is most likely “green washing” because a nail polish which actually works is pretty much impossible to create “natural”. Make sure you check the ingredients to validate any claims. 

So, let’s begin. In order for nail polish to work (like it should work) it generally needs the following components:

1. Solvent(s)
2. Film Forming Polymer
3. Adhesive
4. Plasticizer(s)
5. Pigments &/or pearl essence
6. Thickening agent (often, but not always) 

1. & 2. Solvents & film forming polymer(s)

Let’s start with the first two components in the list above which are pretty much the most vital and they are also the ingredients that are responsible in making the nail polish liquid in the bottle and hard on our nails. The most common and pretty much most necessary combination you will find in almost any nail polish (whether it’s “conventional” or a “free from” nail polish) is its solvents and nitrocellulose. The solvents are what keep the nail polish liquid in the bottle and are also the most highly concentrated ingredient of a nail polish when its in the bottle. There are many types of solvents used in nail polish, but two very common ones (which we also use in our nail polish) are ethyl acetateand butyl acetate. However, when you apply the nail polish onto your nails the solvents will evaporate leaving the film forming polymer to harden on your nails. The most common film forming polymer used in any nail polish (whether it’s a “conventional” or a “free from” nail polish) is nitrocellulose and this is the most highly concentrated ingredient of the nail polish when on your nails.

3. Adhesive

The next important component of a nail polish is the adhesive. As the “name” says, this is the component/ingredient that will help the nail polish to actually stick on your nails (and stay there for longer than a day). This is where the “free from” nail polishes will often differ from a “conventional” nail polish. “Conventional” nail polishes will often use some sort of resin or combination of resins as their adhesive. Examples of these resins are formaldehyde resin (not allowed in the EU) or tosylamide/epoxy resin (often used in conventional nail polishes also in the EU). These resins are known to be of high concern when it comes to our health where formaldehyde resin for example is a proven carcinogen. This is why a “free from” nail polish will most often opt for another alternative as its adhesive and will not include resins in their formula. The most common (and almost only other option) is to use acrylates copolymer as their adhesive agent.  

Acrylates copolymer in nail polish…
Acrylates copolymer is known to be safe to use on our nails in terms of health*. The “issue” with acrylates copolymer is that, whilst not officially classified as a microplastic, it has very similar qualities to a microplastic which is why this ingredient may pose some concerns when it comes to our environment. It is however important to understand and remember how we actually use and remove nail polish. Whilst most other beauty products we wash of with water in the shower or sink, nail polish we remove using a nail polish remover and cotton pad where the cotton pad is disposed of properly in the trash. This means that the nail polish will most likely not land in our water ways, oceans or nature (of course, this cannot be guaranteed, and this will vary in every country and how their disposal system works). Acrylates copolymer used in any other cosmetic product should absolutely be avoided but due to the function of nail polish, it can be considered as a very good and a 100% times better adhesive alternative to resins which not only pose health concerns but are also not good for the environment. 

4. Plasticizer(s)

The final “crucial” component to a nail polish is a plasticizer(s). The plasticizers basically make nail polish more flexible and increase their durability i.e. they make the nail polish less prone to cracking or chipping. “Conventional” and “free from” nail polishes will again differ with the type of plasticizer they use in their nail polish. Conventional nail polishes will often use plasticizers like camphor (not allowed in the EU), phthalates or triphenyl phosphate which have all been classified as harmful or toxic (e.g. hormone disrupting) ingredients. These plasticizers are often considered of “better quality” than the alternative plasticizers a “free from” nail polish would use but even if these plasticizers might help the nail polish last a day or two longer on your nails, their health and environmental concerns make them something you should definitely avoid. A “free from” nail polish will opt for a safer and less toxic plasticizer e.g. acetyl tributyl citrate

5. & 6. Pigments / pearl essence & thickening agent 

The last component that every nail polish will have in common are the pigments and/or pearls. As the names say, these are what give the nail polish their colour, shine, shimmer and/or metallic tone.
There are hundreds of pigments that could be used in a nail polish to create the different colours. These can be either inorganic (e.g. chromium oxide for green, iron oxide for reds and oranges or ferric ferrocyanide for blue colours) or organic compounds which are pigments/colours that are often also found in foods. A red nail polish often includes the pigment “carmine” which is derived from crushed cochineal bugs which is why a red nail polish is often not vegan. Pigments are most commonly denoted with their CI numbers in the ingredients list which are usually the final ingredients on the list.
Metallic, glitter or shimmer shades will also include ingredients like mica or guanine (for shimmer) or a mixture of titanium dioxide or mica (for metallic or pearl). Guanine is derived from fish scales which again is a common non-vegan ingredient in a nail polish. Some glitter nail polish shades might also include polymer particles. Finally, a nail polish will also often have a thickening agent such as stearalkonium hectorite or stearalkonium bentonite to keep the pigments suspended in the nail polish and to keep the smooth and thick consistency of the nail polish. 

In summary it’s safe to say that nail polish is a very special and unique cosmetic product and is unlike any other beauty item we use. What makes a nail polish so different to other makeup products is that it needs to be liquid in the bottle and harden on our nails PLUS stay on our nails for several days. Whilst all nail polishes will have very similar components, it’s definitely worth choosing a less toxic or “free from” nail polish which most often opts to use safer alternatives for each of the above-mentioned components. Like with most things in the world (especially beauty products), there is no “perfect” when it comes to nail polish and its ingredients but there are definitely safer alternatives and there are less safe alternatives. Generally, the “conventional” nail polishes often still use harsh ingredients especially when it comes to their adhesive agent and plasticizers but they also often times might use a more harmful solvent than e.g. ethyl acetate or butyl acetate (different solvents can help the nail polish dry faster or slower). 

When it comes to nail polish it’s best to opt for the most natural, less toxic and sustainable “free from” nail polish option possible. We at Kia-Charlotta create 14-free nail polishes, which means they are free from the 14 most toxic and animal derived ingredients still commonly used in nail polishes today. On top of that, our nail polishes are in 5ml bottles (instead of the common 11ml or 15ml bottle) which helps you actually use your whole product instead of owning a bunch of half full nail polishes which you don’t even use anymore. I.e. be mindful of the waste you create and try to create less of it, also with nail polish. If you find that you didn’t manage to use your nail polish to the end and need to recycle it, please check our blog post on how to recycle your nail polish here (spoiler: it’s not that easy). 

Shop our nail polishes here.

Thank you for tuning in the blog post and video today. We wish you an amazing day and we hope you are well!

Lots of LOVE,
Your Kia-Charlotta Team 

*disclaimer: we are not health professionals, experts or specialists. If you have any questions regarding ingredients or other health concerns, please make sure to consult your healthcare provider. We also always encourage you to do your own research and to validate any claims made on the internet or by companies/brands. 

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