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Is There Formaldehyde in Nail Polish?

By A.M. Boyle
Updated May 21, 2024
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There has been much concern over whether there is formaldehyde in nail polish. The short answer is that there is none. While nail polish may contain chemical substances derived from formaldehyde, in its pure form, formaldehyde itself is not an ingredient.

The reason that many people are worried about whether there is formaldehyde in nail polish is because of the listing of formaldehyde as a substance capable of causing cancer in humans. Unfortunately, there is some misunderstanding as to the nature of formaldehyde and how or when it might cause a cancer risk. A good deal of readily available misinformation has led some people to believe that there are dangerous levels of formaldehyde in nail polish when this is simply not the case.

Formaldehyde is an organic gas comprised of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon; it occurs naturally and is found in the human body as well as certain unprocessed foods that people eat, including some types of fruits and vegetables. In its pure state, it is a colorless, flammable gas that has a very strong odor. Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have determined that excessive exposure to formaldehyde gas, especially over a long period of time, can cause cancer in a rare nasal form. Food and other substances that release or contain a concentration of formaldehyde of 0.2 percent or less are considered perfectly safe.

Among its many purposes, formaldehyde is used to produce various chemical compounds important in manufacturing certain products. Due to its fragile nature as a gas, when formaldehyde is mixed with other compounds, especially liquid, a phenomenon called chemical bonding occurs, and it transforms into a completely different substance, losing its characteristics as formaldehyde. In other words, when formaldehyde gas is mixed with solids or liquids, it ceases to be formaldehyde.

Before the process of chemical bonding as it relates to formaldehyde was clearly understood, if a product was made with the substance, it had to be included as an ingredient. This was true even though the compound had an entirely different chemical composition and did not have the same properties as formaldehyde. As the chemical structure of formaldehyde and the compounds it was used to create became clearer, this labeling requirement was eliminated. Still, some products continue to list formaldehyde as an ingredient, even though it is not an accurate classification.

One such formaldehyde compound, called formalin and otherwise known as methylene glycol, is often included as an ingredient in nail polish. Although formalin is generally made by mixing formaldehyde gas with water, it bears no chemical relation to formaldehyde and is a different substance altogether. As a result of the outdated labeling requirements, though, many nail polishes still list formaldehyde as an ingredient. Consequently, many people are misled to believe that there is formaldehyde in nail polish when, in fact, it is formalin, an entirely different compound that poses no known cancer risk

Another substance that causes confusion is known as tosylamide formaldehyde resin. This substance is sometimes used in the making of nail polish. Like formalin, although it is made using formaldehyde, it has a completely different chemical composition. It is not a gas but rather is a thick, sticky substance. The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that the substance has formaldehyde in its name. The fact remains, though, that, even if even if tosylamide formaldehyde resin is listed as an ingredient, there is no actual formaldehyde in nail polish.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Ocelot60 — On Sep 01, 2014

@rundocuri- This is true to some extent, but it doesn't chip and fade to the point that it is not worth using. For me, the peace of mind of using a product with fewer harmful ingredients is worth extra cost and slight inconvenience, like having to touch up my manicure every few days.

By Rundocuri — On Aug 31, 2014

@ocelot60- That is a good rule to live by, but isn't the problem with water-based nail polish that they don't last as long as traditional polishes?

By Ocelot60 — On Aug 30, 2014

Though it is nice to know that the pure form of formaldehyde is not in nail polish, I'm sure that most of the ingredients are not good for your health. As a rule of thumb, I don't like to use any product with ingredients that I can't pronounce, and most nail polishes have many! This is why I prefer water-based nail polishes that have fewer harmful chemicals.

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