Fact-check: “Solvent-Free” Nail Polish Removers

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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?

solvent free polish remover

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:

nail polish remover solvents

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?

Pros:
1. Smell – The newer solvents are a fair bit less whiffy than acetone, so if solvents tend to give you migraines, these might be worth a go.

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).

Cons:

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.

More safety info:
Acetone
Ethyl acetate
Dibasic esters
Ethyl lactate
Propylene carbonate
Methyl soyate

*This product was provided for review, which did not affect my opinion. For more information, see Disclosure Policy.

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9 thoughts on “Fact-check: “Solvent-Free” Nail Polish Removers”

  1. Again! I declare you my new Chemistry teacher. I absolutely adore you! I”ve learned so much. I can test many of the things you mention in your post on the lab at my university. So proud to see that you are helping so many girls understand and enjoy beauty products in a whole diferent way.

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  2. great post! I too have recently tried some manicare remover wipes, but they’re not quick enough for me. I’ve been using acetone for years and my polish literally just wipes away (not glitter of course: :)) but I find the wipes take more time and I need to hold them in place and let the remover more or less ‘soak in’… I’m not sold on them, but agree that they do smell a lot better 🙂

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  3. Thanks for your great explanation of this. Even though I have really fragile skin, I’m sticking by my acetone. Why? The less scrubbing I do, the less likely my skin is to tear or flake, so I just rub Aquaphor ointment over my hands before removing the polish and do it quickly with acetone.

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  4. I’ve used the Beautyworld soy remover and I actually really love it! I thought I’d hate it but it’s great! You paint it on like polish and leave for a few mins, wipe and then I usually repeat just to get a few last bits off. It moisturises your nails and cuticles. Much gentler, which is great for me because since I had hand, foot and mouth disease I have had really dry, sore skin under my free edge.

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  5. Great data. Appreciate it regarding delivering us all a real valuable data. Sustain the nice function as well as carry on delivering us all additional quality data on occasion.Nail Polish

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  6. This was so informative. I tried Josie Maran’s Bear Naked Nail Wipes (from Sephora.com) and I absolutely love them, but I wanted to find out how they were different from regular old acetone. The ingredients include Dimethyl Glutarate, Dimethyl Adipate, and Dimethyl Succinate, which are all on your list! The other ingredients are Cyclopentasiloxane, Ethylhexyl Palmitate, and argan oil (moisturizers). Thank you for helping me to be an informed consumer!

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  7. Pingback: Dissolve to Remove Nail Polish | Gullible Mummy
  8. Thankyou x

    So all nail polish removers will cause nails to peel or crack if used regularly and one is prone to this? Because they all contain a solvent of some kind that causes the nail damage?
    So it seems i may as well go back to acetone as it has less time to soak into nails?
    Thanks for your super sitex
    Gaye in OZ

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