Nail varnish

Nail polish is a lacquer applied to human finger or toe nails to decorate and protect the nail plate. Today's nail polish is a refined version similar to the paint on vehicles. However, its formula has been revised repeatedly to prevent the cracking or flaking that occurs with the natural movement of the nail.[1]


Nail polish originated in China, dating back to 3000 BC.[1][2] Around 600 BC during the Zhou Dynasty, the royal house preferred for the colors gold and silver.[1] However, it would eventually transition to red and black.[1] During the Ming Dynasty, nail polish was often made from a mixture including beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, vegetable dyes, and gum Arabic.[1][2]

In Egypt, the lower classes would wear pale colors and the high society red.

By the turn of the 9th century, nails were tinted with scented red oils, and polished or buffed. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, people pursued a polished rather than painted look by massaging tinted powders and creams into their nails, then buffing them shiny. One such polishing product sold around this time was Graf's Hyglo nail polish paste. After the creation of automobile paint, Cutex produced the first modern nail polish in 1917.[3][not specific enough to verify] Later the Charles Revson Company (later Revlon) produced their first nail polish in 1932.

Once nail polish was refined, it was often used in the place of gloves to cover up the grime underneath finger and toe nails.[4]


Nail polish today is a refined version of the paint on vehicles. Most nail polishes are made of nitrocellulose dissolved in a solvent (e.g. butyl acetate or ethyl acetate) and either left clear or colored with various pigments. Basic components include: film forming agents (silver halide), resins and plasticizers, solvents, and coloring agents. Adhesive polymers (e.g. tosylamide-formaldehyde resin) ensure that the nitrocellulose adheres to the nail's surface. Plasticizers (e.g. camphor) are chemicals that link among polymer chains, spacing them to make the film sufficiently flexible after drying. Pigments and sparkling particles (e.g. mica) add desired color and reflecting characteristics. In addition, coloring "may also be attributable to the presence of chemicals such as chromium oxide greens, chromium hydroxide, ferric ferrocyanide, ferric ammonium ferrocyanide, stannic oxide, titanium dioxide, iron oxide, carmine, ultramarines, and manganese violet.” In order to get that glittery/shimmer look in the color, mica, bismuth oxychloride, natural pearls, and aluminum powder are added into the ingredients of the nail polish.[5] Thickening agents (e.g. stearalkonium hectorite) are added to maintain the sparkling particles in suspension while in the bottle. Ultraviolet stabilizers (e.g. benzophenone-1) resist color changes when the dry film is exposed to direct sunlight.

Nail polish makers are under pressure to reduce or to eliminate toxic ingredients, including phthalates, toluene, and formaldehyde. In September 2006, several makers agreed to phase out dibutyl phthalate, which has been linked to testicular problems in lab animals and humans, in updated formulations.[6] Some makers eliminated formaldehyde from their products, others still use it.[7] The city of San Francisco enacted a city ordinance, publicly identifying establishments that use nail polishes free of the "toxic trio" of toluene, dibutyl phthalate and formaldehyde.[8]

Studies performed on female rats discovered that DBP, also known as phthalates, have been causing birth defects. It was soon removed from the ingredients of nail polish as a precaution. "The amount of chemicals used in animal studies is probably a couple of hundred times higher than what you'd be exposed to from using nail polish every week or so," says Paul Foster, PhD, a senior fellow at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "So the chance of any individual phthalate producing such harm is very slim."[9]

Nail polish is considered a hazardous waste by some regulatory bodies such as the Los Angeles Department of Public Works).[10] Many countries have strict restrictions on sending nail polish by mail.[11][12]

In order to reduce the exposures of nail salon workers to the potentially dangerous chemicals found in nail polish, nail tables equipped with local exahust ventilation have been used in nail salons.[13] Researchers have been evaluating the effectiveness of the different local exhaust ventilation systems in ventilated nail tables. Preliminary findings have shown these ventilation systems have potential to reduce worker exposure to chemicals by at least 50%.[14]

Types of polish

Base Coat

This type of nail polish is a clear or milky colored polish formula that is used specifically before applying nail polish to the nail. The purpose of it is to strengthen nails, restore moisture to the nail, and/or help polish adhere to the nail. Some base coats are marketed as "ridge fillers" and, by creating a smooth surface, reduce the appearance the ridges that can appear on unhealthy nails or due to aging. Base coat may also help keep nails from being stained by colored polish.

Top Coat

This type of nail polish is a clear colored polish formula that is used specifically after applying nail polish to the nail. It forms a hardened barrier for the nail to prevent chipping, scratching and peeling. Many top coats are marketed as "quick-drying" and, in addition to drying quickly, also help the underlying colored polish dry quickly.


Gel nail polish is a long-lasting type of nail polish. It is painted on the nail like a regular polish, and does not dry untill it is "set" under an ultraviolet or LED lamp. While regular nail polish formulas typically last 2-7 days before chipping, gel polish lasts around two weeks on most. Gel polish is more difficult to remove than regular nail polish; it is usually scraped off after soaking the nails in acetone for 5-10 minutes. It is not possible to remove gel polish with non-acetone nail polish remover.

Nail polish in fashion

Traditionally, nail polish started in clear, red, pink, purple, and black. Since that time, many new colors and techniques have developed, resulting in nail polish which can be found in an extremely diverse variety of colors. Beyond solid colors, nail polish has also developed an array of other designs and colors, such as nail polish stamps, crackled, magnetic, nail polish strips and stickers. Fake rhinestones are also often applied. Some types of polish are advertised to cause nail growth, make nails stronger, prevent nails from breaking, cracking and splitting, and to stop nail biting. Nail polish may be applied as one of several components in a manicure.

French manicures are manicures designed to resemble natural nails, and are characterized by natural pink base nails with white tips, making it one of the first popular and well known color schemes with nail polish. The tips of the nails are painted white while the rest of the nails are polished in a pink or a suitable nude shade. French manicures may have originated in 18th-century Paris and were popular in the 1920s and 1930s.

Social media has given rise to the nail art culture that allows users to share their pictures about their nail art. "WWD reports nail polish sales hit a record $768 million in the U.S. in 2012, a 32% gain over 2011, despite a cluttered market that seemingly sees a new launch each week."[15] Several new polishes and related products came on to the market in the second decade of the 21st century as part of the explosion of nail art, such as nail stickers (either made of nail polish or plastic), "crackle" nail polish, magnetic nail polish, and nail decorations.

Nail polish remover

Nail polish is removed with nail polish remover or nail pads, which is an organic solvent, but may also include oils, scents and coloring. Nail polish remover packages may include individual felt pads soaked in remover, a bottle of liquid remover that can be used with a cotton ball or cotton pad, and even containers filled with foam that can be used by inserting a finger into the container and twisting until the polish comes off.

The most common type of nail polish remover contains the volatile organic compound acetone. It is powerful and effective, but is harsh on skin and nails, which makes them more brittle.[16] It can also be used to remove artificial nails, which are usually made of acrylic. Less toxic to children is ethyl acetate, the active ingredient in non-acetone nail polish removers, which also often contain isopropyl alcohol.[17] Ethyl acetate is generally the solvent in nail polish itself.

Acetonitrile has been used as a nail polish remover, but it is toxic and potentially carcinogenic. It has been banned in the European Economic Area for cosmetics since 17 March 2000.[18]


Further reading

  • Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, Harper & Row, 1987
  • Vanni Contingo, article published in Cosmopolitan magazine, copyright 2007
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.