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What is Nail Lacquer?

M.C. Huguelet
Updated May 21, 2024
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Nail lacquer, also known as polish or varnish, is a quick-drying liquid substance applied with a small brush to the fingernails and toenails to give them shine or color or to promote strength or growth. It is available in a vast array of hues. While it is a widely used beauty product, some health experts express concern over the potentially harmful effects of its ingredients.

Many people use nail lacquer to embellish their nails. With the incredibly wide range of colors available, there is a lacquer to suit every mood and occasion. Those who prefer a simple look might opt for a clear lacquer, while those seeking glamour may choose a dramatic red. Also available are playful tones like blue or neon orange, and moody hues such as black or deep purple. Some lacquers have special effects such as an opalescent shimmer or glitter, which can enhance their color or simply add an element of fun.

Certain lacquer formulations are designed to promote growth and prevent breakage by strengthening the nails. This type of lacquer may contain ingredients like soy protein, collagen, and vitamin B5, which are intended to nourish the nails and prevent brittleness, peeling, and cracking. Often this type of nail lacquer is colorless, and may be worn underneath a colored lacquer, or may be worn alone, resulting in natural-looking nails with a touch of shine.

Most nail lacquers are a mixture of many different chemicals, each which plays a part in lacquer’s unique constitution. For instance, solvents such as ethyl acetate provide a liquid base in which the varnish’s other ingredients can be suspended. Resins bond to the nail, causing the lacquer to stay in place. Thickeners keep the lacquer’s color particles evenly distributed throughout the liquid.

Health experts have expressed concern over the potentially harmful effects of certain ingredients common to many nail lacquer ingredients, namely, toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate (DBT). These chemicals may have carcinogenic effects when inhaled in large quantities. To make nail lacquer safer for general use, many of these experts have urged cosmetics manufacturers to devise new formulations which are free of potentially toxic chemicals. As a result, many manufacturers have revised their formulas and now offer lacquers that are more health-friendly. To ensure that a lacquer is free of recognized carcinogens prior to purchase, inspect the product’s packaging for phrases such as “Formaldehyde, toluene, and DBT free.”

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M.C. Huguelet
By M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide range of publications, including BeautyAnswered. With degrees in Writing and English, she brings a unique perspective and a commitment to clean, precise copy that resonates with readers. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By anon314575 — On Jan 18, 2013

In response to one poster: the natural nail plate is not living - it does not breathe. It is made up of non-living keratin. It does not hurt to have your nails clipped, the same as it doesn’t hurt to have your hair cut. The nail plate is healthy when the health of the nail bed, matrix and surrounding tissue are properly cared for; it does not need to “breathe” to be healthy.

Applying polish regularly prevents the natural nail's exposure to bleaches, cleaning products and water. Water can cause the nail plate to swell and the nail then can peel in little flakes. Using a good quality cuticle oil will produce some nail enhancement and polishes actually ensure healthy nails are maintained while they are covered.

Chipping is one of those annoying things that can never be completely solved. Nails are naturally flexible and if knocked, the nail bend, the polish cracks and causes flaking. Applying topcoat will help seal the color, making it more resilient.

By kylee07drg — On Dec 09, 2012

I like to use various colors of nail lacquer to make designs on my nails, particularly around the holidays. I use yellow, orange, and white to do candy corn nails around Halloween, and I use silver, red, and green to make various Christmas designs.

The best type of polish to use for this is the kind that dries in one minute. That way, you don't waste a lot of time waiting for one color to dry before you apply the next, and you don't end up with muddy nails.

I never use a frost polish for these designs, unless it is a finishing coat. Frost polish doesn't show up very well, and you have to apply far too many coats to get a solid color out of it. It's great for adding shimmer to an existing coat, though.

By Oceana — On Dec 09, 2012

@lighth0se33 – I would definitely recommend non-acetone lacquer remover. It is much gentler on your nails, and it won't do damage to them.

I had been using non-acetone remover for years before I tried the acetone kind. I was over at a friend's house, and acetone remover was all she had, so I tried it.

It turned my nails white! It seemed to be eating through them like acid. They became weak and brittle, and it took awhile for them to recover. I will never use acetone nail polish remover again!

By lighth0se33 — On Dec 08, 2012

I just recently started using nail lacquer, and I need to buy a nail lacquer remover. Which is best, acetone or non-acetone?

By shell4life — On Dec 08, 2012

@simrin – The best way to keep nail polish from chipping off of the tips is to start by swiping the polish across the tip, making sure to coat the top of your nail. You can even get a little polish on the underside of the tip for extra protection.

After you do this, apply a coat of polish over your entire nail. After that dries, apply another coat.

When the nail polish starts to wear away at the tips, you will have an extra layer of protection underneath. I can make my polish job last days longer by doing this.

By stoneMason — On Dec 07, 2012
Aside from the carcinogenic ingredients in nail lacquer, it's also bad because it doesn't allow our nails to breathe. Nails are just like skin and theyneeds access to oxygen to be healthy. So wearing nail polish constantly prevents the nails from breathing and they will start to turn yellow after a while.

I always make sure to give my nails a break from nail polish a couple of days every week.

By burcidi — On Dec 06, 2012

@simrin-- Have you tried wearing a clear top coat on top of the polish? That will make it last longer and prevent it from chipping.

You might also want to buy a better quality nail polish. I personally cannot use anything other than Revlon, Essie, China Glaze or OPI nail polish because others chip very quickly.

I used to think that all nail polishes are the same and it's not worth spending a lot for them. But really, quality matters and a better quality polish is going to last you much longer and you will be happy wearing it.

By SteamLouis — On Dec 05, 2012

I like wearing nail polish but it always chips in a day or two. It's tiring to constantly remove chipped polish and re-apply it. Is there a way to prevent nail polish from chipping?

By animegal — On Jun 01, 2011

For those who are interested in using nail lacquer for nail art, you can buy polish in special pens for fine detailing. This kind of applicator makes placing designs on your art easier and it looks much more professional.

A good idea is to get a book that shows you the different designs with tips on how to get them. You can also buy special beads and shimmer accents to add to your design. These are placed in wet lacquer and seal themselves in.

Art done on your nails with lacquer at a salon can get rather expensive, so why not learn to do it yourself?

By Sara007 — On May 30, 2011

There are a lot of companies that are now doing their best to make sure that your nail lacquer is healthy and doesn't harm you.

There are some brands that are now using a water base for their lacquer and removing the harshest chemicals and replacing them with more environmentally friendly versions. They are also against things like animal testing.

You can buy varieties of nail lacquers that are vegan friendly and ones that have won awards for their natural ingredients.

The great thing is, these nail lacquers are about the same price as traditional polish. You can be safer and not break the bank to do it.

M.C. Huguelet
M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide...
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