Nail polish has been around since early China (around 3,000 B.C.). Fingernails were grown as a mark of aristocracy and were regarded as a status symbol. The ancient Chinese made nail polish using a mixture of gum Arabic, gelatin, beeswax, and egg whites. This base substance could then be used to create different lacquers for the nail, which could be dyed later. Women of lower rank were only allowed to wear pale shades while the higher classes showed off their red or black nails.

The Chinese weren’t the only ones enamored with polish. Ancient Egyptians also wore polish, most notably Cleopatra, who wore a signature rusty red shade on her nails.

In the 1920s, the development of automobile paint provided the basis for fingernail paint. In the 1930s, the women of the silver screen helped bring polish to the limelight and that small bottle of polish has enjoyed enormous success ever since.

The basic chemistry of polish hasn’t changed much since the late 1920s, according to Doug Schoon, vice president of science and technology for Creative Nail Design. Most of the formula changes that have occurred have been directed at improving the performance of the product. Pigments continue to be the heart of the polish, providing the color and coloring power.

“Forty years ago there was no method available for suspending the colors,” says Bruce Albert, vice president of research and development for OPI. “The polish had to be shaken well before it could be used.”

Albert says the first major improvement in product formulation was the invention of polyester resins, which help polish stick and help prevent chipping. Stearalkonium hectorite is another ingredient that helped revolutionize polish formulas. The clay product acts as a thickener in polish that helps prevent the colors from settling. This ingredient works best when used with toluene, which is used to dissolve other ingredients in nail polishes and treatments. Nail products with toluene apply more smoothly and help resist peeling.

“Stability and shelf life, adherence to the nails, and gloss have improved over the years,” adds Tracey Leacock, director of marketing and product development for one of the few companies that actually manufacture polish from raw ingredients. “We have improved on dry time and have been able to create suspension aids for special effect pigments and glitters.”

And formulas will continue to change. Schoon says that once water-based polishes equal the current solvent-based technology, for example, they will become more popular in the nail industry.

Chemistry Lessons

Although it’s fair to say that nail polish is one of the safest nail products available on the market, throughout the years, some ingredients commonly found in polish have come under scrutiny.

Toluene isn’t an essential ingredient in polish, but most professional polish manufacturers believe it’s what makes professional formulas adhere so well.

Although toluene has been safely used in nail polish since the late 1930s, the ingredient came under fire in the 1990s by a radical consumer group that misinterpreted a California state proposition. The proposition required manufacturers to use consumer warnings if a chemical suspected of causing birth defects or cancer exceeded the safety level set by the state. One of those chemicals was toluene.

Organizations such as the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA) argued laboratory studies showed toluene levels in nail polish were well below the exposure level set by California.

According to Schoon, the state went as far as asking for a study to determine the level of toluene in the average salon. The study proved that toluene levels in salon air are low. In fact, the highest levels of toluene found were more than 200 times lower than federal standards for safety.

Formaldehyde is another ingredient that has come under fire. Schoon, however, says formaldehyde shouldn’t be a concern for polish users because the negligible amount found in polish is safe. In the U.S., nail hardeners can legally contain up to 5% formaldehyde as formalin, a stabilized form of formaldehyde used in nail hardeners. Nail-hardening products typically contain between 0.3% and 1% formaldehyde. However, polish users who are allergic to formaldehyde can find a full range of formaldehyde-free products on the market.

Most recently dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which helps nail polish spread and keeps it from becoming brittle as it dries, has come under investigation in the United States after the ingredient was banned in Europe.

Studies in animals have shown that phthalates increase the risk of reproductive system birth defects in males and may cause some types of cancer. However, recent government data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that human exposure levels are far below minimum safety levels set by regulatory agencies.

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), established in 1976 by the CTFA, reviews and assesses the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics. A CIR Expert Panel concluded that DBP and other phthalates are safe for use in cosmetic products and there was no need to reassess them for their safety.

Shel Pink, director of fashion, beauty, and brand development for SpaRitual, says that factor and safety were part of the reasons why the company chose not to include the ingredient in its polish at all. “We wanted to give our customers the option to choose a nail lacquer that did not contain DBP, as well as offer a vegan alternative,” she says.

Still, others insist polish has always been safe. “Anyone who has used nail polish knows it’s safe,” says Schoon. “The formulations haven’t changed dramatically since the 1920s. When you have a product in commerce for that long problems become obvious after a few years. But after 70 years of being on the market it’s foolish to assume polish isn’t safe.”

The Chosen Few

Because nail polish contains nitrocellulose, which is highly explosive in its raw state, facilities that make polish must be explosion-proof, kept at a constant temperature, and equipped with generators in case of a power failure. In the U.S. there are only a few bulk manufacturers of nail polish. These companies only accept orders from manufacturers who create unique colors and purchase polish by the thousands of gallons.

Making nail polish is a fairly simple process. The base ingredients of an individual polish formulation are added to a large covered tank and mixed for about 15 minutes with a rotary blade that stirs at a high speed.

Colored pigments and other components that add texture, such as mica, which adds shimmer, are added. That mixture is mixed for another 15 minutes. A sample of the mixture is then placed on a card to check the color. Then a color expert checks to make sure the color is just right.

Once the color is approved, the color batch is poured through a nylon mesh screen cloth to filter out any foreign matter, then placed in 3- to 55-gallon metal drums. These sealed containers are shipped in large drums in trucks to the bottler. Flammable material such as polish cannot be air shipped.

Polish manufacturers can make virtually any shade a company asks for. It’s not unusual for someone to bring in a handbag and ask to have a matching shade of polish made, for example. And it can take several tries until that shade is perfect.

Polish in the Salon

Most people in the nail industry agree polish is safe, and there’s no reason for alarm. “Thirty years ago we couldn’t measure for small amounts of potentially harmful impurities in materials used in these products,” says Albert. “Now we measure things in parts per billion. We insist on colors and other materials that are as free from impurities as is technologically possible. And even with all these technological advances, there is still no evidence that nail polish is unsafe.”

Still, it’s important to have proper ventilation in the salon to ensure your and your clients’ comfort and safety and of course, to reduce unwanted odors from the salon.

So the next time you pick up a bottle of polish and begin applying the color to your client’s nails, take a good look at it. That small bottle of color has come a long way through the years and yet still continues to be a key player in your nail services.

What’s in Polish?

When it comes to polish, there’s more in a bottle than just color. The following are some of the main ingredients in polish.

TAF Resin (tosylamide/formaldehyde resin) — Helps improve adhesion and toughen the polish coating.

Nitrocellulose — Produces hard shiny surfaces, but does not stick to the nail plate. Improves TAF resin by making a hard, shiny surface. TAF resin increases flexibility and toughens nitrocellulose while improving adhesion.

Suspension Agents — Make the product easier to use and help keep polish pigments from settling. They are usually finely ground clays that are thick in the bottle but become thinner while being brushed on the nail. Stearalkonium hectorite is an example of a suspension agent.

Pigments — Provide color and covering power. Titanium dioxide, a white pigment, is often combined with colored pigments.

Plasticizers — Increase flexibility and wear of polish, allowing it to bend.

Solvents — Improve application and flow. They help adjust the product’s thickness. After the polish is applied, the solvent evaporates, leaving behind the remaining ingredients to coat and color the nail plate. Toluene is a solvent.

Stabilizers — Prevent nail polish color from changing or fading. To help slow discoloration, many polish formulas use UV light absorbers, which convert UV light into harmless blue light and heat.

Picking Polish

You love the names of the polishes and color collections, but you’d be surprised at how much work actually goes into producing them. At Essie Cosmetics, for example, president Essie Weingarten and her team come up with six new polish shades every 90 days. “Clients always want to see something new,” she explains.

Weingarten’s team comes up with a theme for the collection and she comes up with the innovative polish names. Do the names Ballet Slippers and Marshmallow sound familiar? “We let the colors dictate where we’re going [with the theme]. It can be a city, musical instruments, or flowers,” she says.

Elyce DeBrown, director of marketing, retail brands, for Creative Nail Design, says she works on the company’s collections at least a year in advance. “I’m typically working on four collections at once,” she says.

DeBrown says fashion plays a major role in what each color collection will be like. “Whatever the styles, fabrics, and colors that are going to be popular or designers are showing help dictate our collections,” she says.

At OPI, Bruce Albert says the collections begin with a map and a vivid imagination. “An exotic geographic location is first selected that captures the season and spirit of the collection,” he says. “Then the shades are chosen. These shades must capture the essence of the region, as well as the time of year.”

OPI employees are invited to help come up with names for the shades. Albert says that as many as 500 polish names are added to a list. A small group of people then decides on the final names.

Marti Clark, marketing assistant for China Glaze, says she’s always looking for ideas to inspire her. “We’re inspired by fashion trends, movies, maybe an article we read,” she says. One of their most popular collections, Voodoo, that U do, was inspired by what Clark calls “the darker side of love.”

“We probably work six months to a year in advance,” she says. “It’s an ever-evolving process.”

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