For years, we’ve been using just 2 solvents, ethyl acetate and acetone, to remove nail polish. But recently a whole host of new removers containing neither of those have made their way onto the market – what are they, and are they worth a shot?
Are they really solvent-free?
No. Anything that dissolves something else up is a solvent – ethyl acetate and acetone are solvents, yes, but so is water. Water dissolves up salt, sugar and all manner of things – it’s often referred to in science as “the universal solvent” because it’s so good at dissolving (though it doesn’t work for polish)! So if you want your polish remover to dissolve your polish (as opposed to helping you pick it off in flakes), you need a solvent.
However, most people think of solvents as whiffy, volatile substances, and yes, the new remover solvents tend to be less whiffy – pleasant, even, though some people find acetone and ethyl acetate pleasant, so it’s really quite subjective – and less volatile too.
What are the solvents then?
There are a host of new polish remover solvents that are actually quite similar to ethyl acetate. These are the most common 4:
Dibasic esters (dimethyl succinate, dimethyl glutarate, dimethyl adipate) – These look like two ethyl acetates holding hands, and have similar properties. Dimethyl succinate is actually a food additive. All three are found in some paint strippers.
Ethyl lactate – This is what’s in your polish remover if it says it’s corn-based. It’s formed from the reaction of ethanol and lactic acid, and smells quite pleasant.
Methyl soyate (aka soybean oil methyl ester, or methyl oleate/palmitate/linoleate/stearate) – This is what the soy based removers contain. It’s formed from reacting soybean oil with methanol in a process that’s quite similar to soap-making. It’s also a biodiesel.
Propylene carbonate – It’s used in some lithium batteries, and supposedly smells quite minty.
What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages?
2. Volatility – The newer solvents evaporate slower, so you can use less in your removal session, and there’s a lower chance of inhaling too much.
3. Skin friendly – Acetone is pretty harsh and strips the skin of water and natural oils, which can be prevented by using a glycerin-acetone mix, but the newer solvents are less efficient and is gentler to your skin (which is also a con).
Not really pros:
1. “No manmade chemicals”/”Natural” – Priti NYC Soy Polish Remover, for example, misleadingly claims this (though since two of the three ingredients are spelt incorrectly, I’m not sure why I’m surprised that their marketing is dodgy). Even without going into the whole false “natural = good, manmade = toxic” myth, this is a fictional claim. When was the last time any sort of vegetable oil dissolved your nail polish? Oil has to undergo a chemical reaction before it turns into a solvent, which has completely different properties to the original oil, and this definitely doesn’t happen naturally.
2. Safety – Many of these removers sell themselves on being safe, but acetone and ethyl acetate are already quite safe. The only issue where they can potentially be dangerous is if they’re drunk by a curious toddler, but many of the new solvents are nasty when swallowed too. There is a slight advantage in the fact that the new solvents are less volatile, so you’ll inhale less of them. However, acetone and ethyl acetate have the bonus of having been used for exactly the same purpose for decades without serious health issues, which can’t be said for the new solvents.
3. Environmentally friendly – Some of the solvents are produced from non-petroleum sources (although so is ethyl acetate, and acetone is a byproduct of another process, meaning it would’ve been produced anyway), and all of them biodegrade readily (but so do ethyl acetate and acetone).
1. Less efficient solvents – Acetone is one of the most effective solvents available, so it dissolves nail polish in a snap. Of course, the flip side is that it also dissolves your natural skin oils quickly. The new solvents may be gentler, but they’re also gentler to the polish, meaning they’ll need more scrubbing and patience.
2. Not commonplace – Currently, these solvents aren’t as cheap and easy to find as ethyl acetate and acetone, so you may need to do some hunting to find them, .
So far the only product I’ve tried containing these new solvents is Manicare’s Nail Polish Remover Pads in Black Vanilla*, which are surprisingly efficient, and smell divine. I’m very attached to the speed of my glycerin-acetone remover mix though, so I’m reserving my opinion on these solvents until I try more products.
*This product was provided for editorial consideration, which did not affect my opinion. For more information, see Disclosure Policy.