Should I buy 3-free, 5-free, 6-free or 7-free nail polish?

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How to cite: Wong M. Should I buy 3-free, 5-free, 6-free or 7-free nail polish?. Lab Muffin Beauty Science. May 21, 2015. Accessed March 5, 2024.


Too many numbers! What’s going on?

3-free polish does not contain dibutyl phthalate, toluene or formaldehyde.

4-free polish does not contain dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde or formaldehyde resin.

5-free polish does not contain dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin or camphor.

6-free polish does not contain dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor or parabens.

7-free polish does not contain dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, parabens or xylene.

Let’s go through the “nasties”:


Dibutyl phthalate – Actually a bit nasty, though probably not that nasty in the amounts in your nail polish – you’re probably getting phthalates by standing near a plastic container.

Toluene – Nasty if you inhale a whole heap of it for a long period of time.

Formaldehyde – Nasty if you’re allergic, or if you get too much on your skin, or if you inhale a whole heap of it.

3-free verdict: If you’re a salon worker or pregnant it’s worth checking the ingredients list to make sure it’s 3-free. If you’re a normal person, they’re good to avoid as much as you can – nail hardeners pretty much need formaldehyde to work though, so use sparingly in a well-ventilated room and you’ll be fine. Luckily, the vast majority of nail polishes are 3-free these days anyway, so as long as you’re not purposely hunting down vintage nail polishes and sniffing them for funsies you’re probably being 3-free anyway.


Formaldehyde resin – There’s a small amount of formaldehyde in this as an impurity (up to 0.5%).

Fun fact: Your body naturally produces more formaldehyde per day than you’ll get in formaldehyde resin from your nail polish.

4-free verdict: Worth getting if you’re allergic or a salon worker, otherwise don’t bother.


Camphor – This isn’t toxic unless you inhale or drink a huge dose (like, twenty bottles’ worth), but it’s an irritant. It’s found in small amounts near the bottom of the nail polish ingredients list.

Fun fact: It’s 25% of rosemary oil.

5-free verdict: We’re really stretching it here. Unless you’re allergic to camphor, there’s no point in avoiding it. Even the chemophobic EWG rates it as low hazard, and they have one foot in tinfoil hat territory.


Parabens – They’re safe in small amounts, and used to keep cosmetics bacteria-free. But guess what? They’re never really used in nail polish, because the solvents make it inhospitable to bacteria anyway.

6-free verdict: Common-sense-free. Logic-free.


Xylene – This is a solvent that used to be in permanent markers. I have never ever seen it in a nail polish. Perhaps it’s an ingredient in some ancient 1960s nail polish.

7-free verdict: You may as well say your nail polish is free of alien hair trimmings.

What’s next?

8-free – Free of GMOs!
9-free – Free of crude oil!
10-free – Free of gluten!
11-free – Free of added sugar!
12-free – Free of enriched uranium!
13-free – Free of racist jokes!
14-free – Free of loud noises in the night!
15-free – Free of TERRORISTS!

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24 thoughts on “Should I buy 3-free, 5-free, 6-free or 7-free nail polish?”

  1. I laughed the whole way through this post! You are so funny! Great information and I especially like the tin foil hat territory in reference to EWG. Thanks for another great article, I can’t wait to read more!

  2. I love this, thanks! Have you seen the studies from a few years ago that showed that a bunch of polishes labeled 3 or 4-free had those ingredients in them anyway? It’s a good thing they aren’t fatal, because you’re possibly going to get them no matter what.

  3. Wonderful, wonderful post! I was laughing out laud while I was reading it.
    I do try to stick with 3-free, but the first time I saw 7-free polish I was wondering what they removed this time. It makes perfect sense that they didn’t remove anything, but just listed stuff that was not in the polish to begin with. The next step in this process will be “Naturally ‘Whatever’-Free”.

    • You can usually find the brand’s ingredients lists via Google – I’ve found that searching the brand with “ethyl acetate” or “butyl acetate” works well (since those two are in every single polish!).

  4. You were joking about gluten-free polish, but I just read on one blog how a certain brand of polish is “cruelty free, vegan, gluten free and made in the USA.”
    Don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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  7. Funny article. But now you are a consultant for a major cosmetic company is it not in your interest to promote products as safe? Just as Doug Schoon was employed as a consultant by the same company to give ‘scientific’ advice and maintain brand loyalty. I think beauty therapists should take their COSHH responsibilities seriously, and fully understand chemicals they are working with. Just because a product is called ‘Bubble Bath’ doesn’t make it safe if it has a multitude of carcinogenic ingredients.

  8. Its nice to have a random laugh about these things, but i have tried 5 free nail polishes and THEY STILL cause onycholisis when I use them!
    The only brand I have found so far that i can use and retain healthy nails, is Acquerella, which is a 10 free from! I don’t have sensitive skin, allergies or anything known, but there is obviously STILL something nasty in 5 free froms to cause your nails to lift off the bed!
    More info below: I developed a problem using normal nail polish, where it caused Onycholysis when i wore nail polish!
    I have no allergies to anything, yet my nails would start separating fromn the beds, and would only cease, when I did not use nail polish, so for years I went without (with healthy nails).
    Thought after 3 yrs I might try again and bam, within a few weeks, it happened again, so I started researching chemical free options.
    settled on trying Acquerella on my fingernails only (10 free) , and zoya on my toenails only (5 free) .
    Fingernails, used it for months with NO PROBLEMS whatsover!
    However the colour range is limited and its not as hard wearing, but a great option for me, however with Zoya, all seemed fine for a while, then i tried one of their glitternailpolishes and got the tell tail twinge of pain in my toenails so took it off to find the chemical burn almost the entire way down my right big toe nail bed and others affected too 🙁
    So I now have 6 wonderful colours of Zoya polish going to waste, as it obviously still has nasties in it which cause harm!
    Such a shame!
    My husband commented when they both came that the Zoya just smelt like normal nailpolish.
    Acquerella has no smell at all!
    So now I am scared to try any other brands, as they are all expensive and not being sure which chemical in the polish caused the problem, I don’t know what to avoid!
    I suppose I will trial one other 10 free brand and see how that goes?
    I have been using acquerella on the damaged toe nails now and the damage is growing out fine even whilst using aqcuerella…anyway, just wanted to post that incase it is helpful to anyone else.


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