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What is Nail Polish Remover?

Sonal Panse
Sonal Panse

A nail polish remover is an organic solvent that is used to remove previously applied nail polish from nails. There are many different types of removers on the market and different brands may have different chemical compositions. The principle ingredients in most, however, are acetone, ethyl acetate or butyl acetate, and alcohol.

These chemicals are known to dehydrate the skin, cause irritation to eyes, and make nails dry and brittle. They also have a distinct chemical smell and are highly flammable. To counter the dehydration and brittleness effects, many removers also contain conditioning ingredients like castor oil, cetyl palmitate, or lanolin.

Nail polish remover helps to remove polish from fingernails and toenails.
Nail polish remover helps to remove polish from fingernails and toenails.

Some removers are acetone-free, but this does not necessarily mean that the product is without side effects, so shoppers should screen the ingredients list carefully. Instead of acetone, the nail polish remover may contain the more toxic methanol. Consumers looking for safer and less-toxic options can opt for water-based products.

Nail polish remover is available as individual felt pads saturated with remover, in foam and remover containers, and in bottled liquid form. The saturated pads are pressed on to the nail to remove the polish. A foam and removal container has a hole on top through which fingers are pushed into the foam inside to remove the polish.

Clear nail polish.
Clear nail polish.

With liquid removers, the remover is taken on a cotton ball or tissue and wiped over the nail to strip away the fingernail polish on it. Depending on the type of polish, the number of applied coats, and the type of remover, one application may be enough. Several applications may be necessary for dark or thick polish.

To understand how nail polish remover works, it is necessary to know that fingernail polish and the remover both contain similar organic solvents; the nail polish also contains drying agents, thickeners, hardening agents, and coloring agents. The organic solvent in a nail polish is what keeps it in a liquid state. A solvent in the remover is what dissolves the hardened polish and returns it back into its liquid form. When the remover is applied to the nail polish, the molecules interrupt, loosen, and break the polymer chains of the polish. This dissolves the hardened polish and transforms it back into its original liquid form so that it can then be wiped off the nail.

Discussion Comments


Interesting article. This helped me know more about nail polish remover.


Acetone (it's organic) fingernail polish remover can be used to thin polish and also thin liquid bandage products that get too think to use from the bottle over time.


@Oceana -- Does using a natural nail polish remover work as well at removing the nail polish? I would like to find something that is not so hard on my nails, but have often wondered if they would work. I paint my nails a lot and want something that removes the polish without much effort.


There have been times when I have been putting on nail polish that I spill some. Sometimes it may just drip on whatever I am wearing, but I have dropped the whole bottle on the floor before too.

This is never good and I have been found anything that removes nail polish from a large area of fabric or carpet. When this happens I try to get rid of the nail polish with some nail polish remover, but it doesn't work that great on any kind of fabric. Even if the polish spills on something like a tile or wood floor, your chances of completely removing it with nail polish remover are slim.


I always use the nail polish remover that comes in a liquid form in a bottle. If I have on a dark color of polish that has 2-3 coats, it can take up to 3 applications before the polish is completely removed.

Even then, my nails still look like they have some color on them and they really don't look very healthy. Sometimes I wonder if it is really worth it and my nails might be better off if I just left them natural.

Once years ago before they limited the liquids you could take with you on the airplane I had a bottle of nail polish remover in my suitcase. Somehow the top came off and this spilled all over everything in my suitcase. This was a huge mess, smelled awful and ruined all the clothes I had in the suitcase. Needless to say, I have never traveled with nail polish remover in my suitcase again.


@wavy58 -- I have a hard time with the smell of nail polish remover as well. Even those that have a "nice" scent still bother me. The scented nail polish removers do help some, but the strong smell really comes through. I just figured you needed to have that strong smell in order to remove the polish from your nails.


@orangey03 – Nail polish remover gave me a migraine once, but it wasn't the kind that causes actual pain. I had the kind where you lose part of your field of vision and see purple spots.

I freaked out when it happened, because I had never experienced one before. Luckily, my dad had, and he reassured me that I wasn't going blind.

After that incident, I switched to a less intense nail polish remover. It is lightly scented and it doesn't have that overpowering smell of alcohol.


Does nail polish remover give anyone else here a headache? I usually layer my polish on pretty thick, so I have to keep the bottle of remover open awhile as I'm saturating multiple cotton balls and struggling to remove it all. The fumes give me a killer headache.


I use a natural nail polish remover, because I hate using strong chemicals on my body. This remover doesn't have horrible fumes, and it is biodegradable.

Also, it doesn't make my nails feel dry after I use it. When I used regular nail polish remover, I had to put cuticle oil on before applying nail polish, and this made it hard for the polish to stick to my nails. I don't need the oil anymore.


I paint my nails once a week, so I use nail polish remover on a weekly basis. I prefer the non-acetone kind.

My friend works in a salon, and she uses acetone nail polish remover. I once borrowed it, and it seemed to eat away at my nail bed! My nails turned white and took on a rough texture.

I don't know how people can use this often and not totally melt their nails away over time. I will never use it again!


I disagree with the nail polish fumes causing manicurists to get poisoned. Nail polish gives off a distinct smell that releases fumes that can be toxic if inhaled too much or too fast. The fumes are not harmful in the least, unless you decide to remove all of the oxygen in the room and replace it with these fumes. I don't think anyone would have time to do that. Anyway, those are just rumors, and not even close to the truth.


I'm not sure about manicurists getting nail polish poisoning from the fumes (although it seems reasonable), but I did hear that some teenagers try drinking nail polish remover to get high.

I saw on a forum how they were advising each other to be sure and get the non-toxic nail polish remover so they wouldn't get any bad side effects -- how sad is that?

Just in case anyone is reading this expecting to get high off of nail polish remover, don't even try. It is extremely poisonous, and will not get you high.


Cool article -- I had always wondered whether using nail polish remover was safe, since you hear so many thing about nail polish remover being toxic.

I had even heard that it was possible to get nail polish remover poisoning from absorbing it through your skin.

I'm not sure if its true, since it sounded kind of like an urban legend, but I heard that nail artists and manicurists sometimes get nail polish remover poisoning from all that professional nail polish remover they're around all day.

I can see how that could be true, since you're absorbing all of those chemicals through your skin and also breathing in all the fumes, but it still sounded just slightly far fetched to me.

Have you heard anything about this?

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