All about nail polishes

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Fingernails before and after application of red nail polish

Nail polish is a lacquer that can be applied to the human fingernails or toenails to decorate and protect the nail plates. The formulation has been revised repeatedly to enhance its decorative effects and to suppress cracking or flaking. Nail polish consists of an organic polymer with various additives.


Nail polish originated in China, and its use dates back to 3000 BC. Around 600 BC, during the Zhou dynasty, the royal house preferred the colours gold and silver. However, red and black eventually replaced these metallic colours as royal favourites. During the Ming dynasty, nail polish was often made from a mixture that included beeswax, egg whites, gelatine, vegetable dyes, and gum Arabic.

In Egypt, the lower classes wore pale colours, whereas high society painted their nails red.

By the turn of the ninth century, nails were tinted with scented red oils, and polished or buffed. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people preferred a polished rather than a painted look by mixing tinted powders and creams into their nails, then buffing them until shiny. One type of polishing product sold around this time was Graf's Hyglo nail polish paste.


Nitrocellulose is a film-forming polymer that is the main ingredient in most nail polishes

Nail polish consists of a film-forming polymer dissolved in a volatile organic solvent. Nitrocellulose that is dissolved in butyl acetate or ethyl acetate is common. This basic formulation is expanded to include the following:

Plasticizers to yield non-brittle films. Dibutylphthalate and camphor are typical plasticizers.

Dyes and pigments. Representative compounds include chromium oxide greens, chromium hydroxide, ferric ferrocyanide, stannic oxide, titanium dioxide, iron oxide, carmine, ultramarine, and manganese violet.

Opalescent pigments. The glittery/shimmer look in the colour can be conferred by mica, bismuth oxychloride, natural pearls, and aluminium powder.

Adhesive polymers ensure that the nitrocellulose adheres to the nail's surface. One modifier used is tosylamide-formaldehyde resin.

Thickening agents are added to maintain the sparkling particles in suspension while in the bottle. A typical thickener is stearalkonium hectorite.

Ultraviolet stabilizers resist colour changes when the dry film is exposed to sunlight. A typical stabilizer is benzophenone-1.


Base coat
This type of nail polish is a clear, milky-coloured, or opaque pink 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" which can create a smooth surface, and 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 a yellowish colour by coloured polishes.

Top coat
This type of nail polish is a clear coloured polish formula that is used specifically after applying nail polish to the nail. It forms a hardened barrier for the nail that can prevent chipping, scratching and peeling. Many top coats are marketed as "quick-drying." Top coats can help the underlying coloured polish dry quickly as well. Many top coats can also help with nail growth or nail repair. It gives the polish a more finished and desired look.

Manganese violet is a typical pigment in nail polish

Gel polish is a long-lasting variety of nail polish made up of a type of methacrylate polymer. It is painted on the nail similar to traditional nail polish, and does not dry until it is cured under an ultraviolet or ultraviolet LED lamp. While regular nail polish formulas typically last two to seven days before chipping, gel polish can last upwards of two weeks with proper application and home care. Gel polish can be more difficult to remove than regular nail polish. It is usually gently pushed off (often with a wooden stick) after soaking the nails in acetone (nail polish remover) for eight to fifteen minutes. It is not possible to remove gel polish with non-acetone nail polish remover.

Matte polish like regular polish that has no shine. It can be purchased as a regular base coat in ranges of different colours. Matte nail polish can also be in a top coat. The top coat is usually the most popular because you can paint it over any dry base colour. The matte top coat polish will dull the shine from the regular base coat polish. Matte polish has become very popular through the years. It gives a different look on nail polish techniques.


Traditionally, nail polish started in clear, red, pink, purple, and black. Since that time, many new colours and techniques have developed. This resulting in nail polish that can be found in an extremely diverse variety of colours and shades. Beyond solid colours, nail polish has also developed an array of other designs, such as crackled, speckled, iridescent, and holographic. Rhinestones or stickers are also often applied to nails or nail polish for decorative designs or techniques. Some types of polish are advertised to cause nail growth, make nails stronger, prevent nails from breaking, cracking and splitting, and to even stop nail biting. Nail polish may be applied as one of several components in a manicure or pedicure.

French Manicure
French manicures are manicures designed to resemble natural nails, and are characterized by natural pink base nails with white tips. French manicures were one of the first popular and well known colour 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 the eighteenth-century in Paris and were most popular in the 1920s and 1930s. French manicures are still very popular and often used in manicure techniques. Some updated trends are now used by painting different colours as the tips of the nails instead of the basic white.

Social Media
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." Several new polishes and related products came on to the market in the second decade of the twenty-first century as part of the explosion of nail art, such as nail stickers (either made of nail polish or plastic), stencils, magnetic nail polish, nail pens, glitter and sequin topcoats, nail caviar (micro beads) nail polish marketed for men, scented nail polish, and colour changing nail polish (some which change hue when exposed to sunshine, and ranges which change hue in response to heat). Pinterest and Instagram have been popular social media sites that many people around the world are posting their unique nail art. This is good for viewers because it can give them an idea of what kind of nail art they could try for themselves.

Western World
Nail polish in the Western World has traditionally been worn by women. Recently, men have begun to wear clear polish on their nails to protect them from breakage. In the past few years, a few men have also started to wear coloured nail polish on their toenails, and some even on their hands. While pastel colours such as pink are not typically worn by men, colours such as black, gun metal, silver, olive green, or brown are more often seen. This is especially true in warm climate areas where open-toed shoes are worn and can mask damaged or disfigured nails.


Nail polish

There are 13 principal nail polish finishes:

  • Shimmer
  • Micro-shimmer
  • Micro-glitter
  • Glitter
  • Frost
  • Lustre
  • Creme
  • Prismatic micro-glitter or shimmer
  • Iridescent
  • Opalescent
  • Matte
  • Duo-chrome
  • Jelly or translucent


Nail polish can be removed with nail pads or nail polish remover. This is an organic solvent, but may also include oils, scents, and colouring. Nail polish remover packages may include individual felt pads soaked in remover. Some removers are a bottle of liquid remover that can be used with a cotton ball or cotton pad. Others can be containers filled with foam that can be used by inserting a finger into the container and twisting until the polish comes off. Choosing a type of remover is determined by the users preference and often the price or quality of the remover.

The most common type of nail polish remover contains the volatile organic compound acetone. It is powerful and effective, but can be harsh on skin and nails. It can also be used to remove artificial nails, which are usually made of acrylic and gel nails. A less harsh nail polish removal is ethyl acetate, the active ingredient in non-acetone nail polish removers, which also often contain isopropyl alcohol. 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 use in cosmetics since 17 March 2000.


Ingredient dangers
Nail polish formulations may include ingredients that cause cancer in humans, or are toxic to the central nervous system. Those ingredients include phthalates, toluene, and formaldehyde. Manufacturers have been pressured by consumer groups to reduce or to eliminate potentially-toxic ingredients, and in September 2006, several companies agreed to phase out dibutyl phthalate, which had been linked to problems in the endocrine system and increased risk of diabetes in women. There are no universal consumer safety standards for nail polish, however, and while formaldehyde has been eliminated from some nail polish brands, others still use it.

Health risks
The health risks associated with nail polish are not undisputed. According to Paul Foster, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (a division of the National Institutes of Health, under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), "The amount of chemicals used in animal studies is probably a couple of hundred times higher than what you would be exposed to from using nail polish every week or so. So the chances of any individual phthalate producing such harm [in humans] is very slim."

A more serious health risk is faced by professional nail technicians, who perform manicures over a workstation known as a "nail table," on which the client’s hands rest - directly below the technician's breathing zone. In 2009, Dr. Susan Reutman, an epidemiologist with the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's Division of Applied Research and Technology, announced a federal effort to evaluate the effectiveness of downdraft vented nail tables (VNTs) in removing potential nail polish chemical and dust exposures from the technician's work area. These ventilation systems have potential to reduce worker exposure to chemicals by at least 50%. Many nail technicians will often wear masks to cover their mouth and nose from inhaling any of the harsh dust or chemicals from the nail products.

According to Reutman, a growing body of scientific literature suggests that some inhaled and absorbed organic solvents found in nail salons such as glycol ethers and carbon disulfide may be human reproductive toxicants. These are responsible for effects including birth defects, low birth weight, miscarriage, and preterm birth.

The U.S. 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.

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

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