The Chemistry of Nail Polish

IntroductionNail polish can be used on fingernails and toenails; mainly by women. It is very common for young girls to “paint their fingernails.” People also go to salons to get their nails done. It is very fashionable. Most nail lacquers today are non-toxic. People want brands of nail polish that are easy to apply, dry quickly, glossy looking, and last a long time without chipping

Composition of ...

-Nitrocellulose compounds dissolved in butyl acetate or ethyl acetate liquids

-File forming compounds, resins, coloring agents, and adhesive resins

-Used to contain formaldehyde

-Nail polish mixtures vary depending on the brand. The compounds can be read on every label but the amount of each compound isn’t released

-Adhesive polymers (tosylamide- formaldehyde resin)- makes sure the polish stays on the nail

-Plasticizers (camphor)- makes the polish flexible after drying by linking between polymer chains

-Thickening agents (stearalkonium hectorite)- keep the sparkling agents in the bottle

-Ultraviolet stabilizers (benozophenone-1)- resist color changes when exposed to sunlight

-3 chemicals in nail polish are related to cancer and birth defects

-dibutyl phthalate



-On Label of N.Y.C nail polish: (in order)

Ethyl Acetate, Butyl Acetate Nitrocellulose, Isopropyl Alcohol, Polyester Resin, Dibutyl Phthalate, Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Stearalkonium Hectorite, Stearalkonium Bentonite, Benozophenone-1, Fragrance.

Main Chemicals, Compounds, Components

Why and how does nail lacquer dry?

-Once applied, the polish is exposed to air and the solvent evaporates (ethyl acetate), turning the liquid nail polish hard.

-If a solvent such as isopropyl alcohol or acetate is added back to it, it will become a liquid again

-This also explains why nail polish hardens and cannot be used any longer if it’s left open.

Why should you shake the bottle of nail polish before use?

-Particles can only be held to the solvent for a couple of years

-Shaking the bottle helps to restore the settled particles and to combine everything again

Why does nail polish smell?

-When ethyl acetate and butyl acetate combine they produce a very strong odor.

How do you remove nail polish from your nails?

-Nail polish remover

-Mainly acetone

-Can dissolve many plastics, glues, and paints

Chemistry's Role

-Nitrocellulose- a flammable ingredient, main ingredient in gunpowder. It is naturally occuring.

-Liquid mixed with tiny cotton pieces


-Ethyl Acetate- used as a solvent in oil-based lacquers and chemical processes. Nail polish turns from a liquid to a solid when this evaporates.

-Smells like pear drops

-Has a very low boiling point

-Used in perfumes, paints, fruits, and wine

-Coffee beans and tea leaves are decaffeinated with ethyl acetate


Background Research

-The Incas used to paint eagles on their nails

-When car paint came around in 1920, it inspired people to paint their nails

-Stays on better if there is more than 1 coat on and if a top (clear) coat is put on.

-Comes in ALL colors

-Can turn nails yellow

-There is glitter and crackle nail polish also

-Popular nail polish brands: Wet n Wild, Maybelline, AVON, Revlon, OPI, China Glaze


-Background Info

-Composition of nail polish

-Banned ingredients


-What is in nail polish?

-Why is hardens

About the Author

Michaela Kueffler is a junior at Senior High School in Billings, MT. She enjoys spending time outdoors and playing soccer. She is planning to play soccer and attend college out of state after graduation in 2013.