Nail Polish Facts That Might Surprise You

Laura Tolentino

Updated on:

Nail polish is one of the world’s most beloved beauty products, yet many don’t realize its humble beginnings came from car paint!

Modern nail polishes contain ingredients like solvents (like ethyl acetate and butyl acetate), film formers such as nitrocellulose and urethane, pigments for color enhancement, film formers to create a hard, glossy surface and dyes to give them their unique hues.


Nail polish has a rich and intriguing history that spans back more than 300 years. From early versions made with car paint, to today’s famous emery board based polishes, there are so many surprising facts about this popular beauty product that might surprise you!

Women have been coloring and coating their nails since ancient times, but modern nail polish really flourished during the 1920s with the invention of nitrocellulose cotton (commonly referred to as guncotton). This revolutionary substance produced less abrasive nail enamel that allowed women to apply color faster.

Since 5000 BC, humans have used henna to dye their nails different colors. Cleopatra was well known for using this practice on her red nails while mummified pharaohs were often found with stained fingertips due to this plant. Over time this practice spread throughout Asia, Africa and India before eventually reaching Europe via trade deals between these regions.

At this point, nail polish was mostly utilized by the rich. Women would soak their nails in a mixture of egg whites, beeswax and gelatin before applying dye from plants and orchids for differentiation between social classes. Warrior of ancient Babylon would paint their nails with kohl, with different hues signifying different classes – black being associated with higher ranks while green signaled lower ranks.

Early in the 1980s, Essie Weingarten created her first nail polishes and introduced nail polish to a wider public. However, it wasn’t until 1975 when Jeff Pink was able to develop a manicure that didn’t interfere with costume changes during filming – thus giving birth to what we know today as French manicures.


As we all know, nail polish comes in various shades ranging from classic reds and vibrant hues like aquamarine, nudes and glitter – there’s so much more you can learn about the product you use on your fingers daily!

Since nail polish has come a long way since its humble origins to become a multibillion-dollar industry, there are plenty of surprises associated with its development that may surprise you. Whether you change up your nail color frequently to match outfits or simply enjoy collecting pretty shades at bargain prices, it is essential to keep these interesting nail polish facts in mind.

Nail polish has long been used as an expressive medium, but ancient cultures used nail polish as an indicator of social status as well. For instance, in Ancient Egypt women from higher social classes would paint their nails in rich ruby hues to show their wealth; Cleopatra herself may have even dyed hers using the henna plant.

Today’s nail polish comes in an abundance of shades, but some colors stand out more than others. Lavender stands out as a particularly calming option during the hotter seasons; other popular choices are peach and pastel pink for their sweet, feminine looks that suit different events perfectly.

However, it’s important to avoid overpainting your nails as this can weaken and increase susceptibility to damage. To help avoid this mistake, apply a base coat before painting starts and use an acetone-free polish remover between changes. Also ensure your choice contains high SPF protection to shield your nails from sunlight damage.


Nail polish’s chemical composition can be complex, yet essential to producing products that dry quickly, adhere securely to nails, and are long-wearing. Ingredients used during production must meet various criteria including dry time, flow rate, color intensity, gloss level, abrasion resistance and more – tests performed through the manufacturing process must meet this stringent standard as part of making marketable nail polish products. These objective tests may take more time but are necessary in creating marketable polish products.

Primary film formers such as nitrocellulose or guncotton provide hard texture when applied, and can be dissolved using solvents like ethyl acetate or butyl acetate. Some brands of nail polish use secondary film formers such as resins such as tosylamide/formaldehyde resin or dibutyl phthalate to add shine while helping keep polish in place on the nail bed. Chemical plasticizers make polish flexible by connecting and stretching polymer chains; camphor is one such plasticizer commonly used by producers.

Some ingredients in nail polish may be toxic or at the very least irritating, including toluene and xylene. Thankfully, they’re no longer widely used in modern nail polish manufacturing, with safe alternatives providing safe alternatives.

Find nail polish without these toxic ingredients is possible, but it is a wise idea to read labels before purchasing. Many brands list the chemicals on their websites for easy reference if desired; alternatively you could search online resources such as PubChem and EWG’s Skin Deep for further insight.

Shelf Life

Nail polishes may not have an expiration or sell-by date like other cosmetics (like lipstick and mascara), but they still have an optimal lifespan of 18 months after opening if stored in a cool, dark environment. But thick texture or clumpiness, color change, or an offensive smell could all indicate it’s time to get rid of that bottle!

While it is essential to use clean nails and apply a base coat and two thin layers of nail polish for optimal results, nail varnishes’ main purpose is to enhance and embellish natural nails. That is why nail varnishes contain various ingredients – plasticisers such as Acetyl Tributyl Citrate to prevent lacquer cracking; stabilisers to keep colors from fading, as well as adhesives which help make sure it sticks tightly onto nails; adhesives may also be included to help the polish adhere securely on nails; plasticisers such as Acetyl Tributyl citrate; stabilisers to keep colors stable on nails; and adhesives to help glue it to natural nails – to achieve best results.

Gel nail polishes require special consideration, as they need to be cured under UV or LED lights to harden their product and cure properly. If this process fails, the gel polish may become sticky or thick and even be irreparably damaged; so for best results store in dark and cool environment and avoid temperatures which might degrade their quality.


Formaldehyde, a colourless gas with an unpleasant and pungent odour, can be highly toxic to human beings in high concentrations. Breathing it in can cause nose irritation (including burning sensations) and respiratory distress such as wheezing and difficulty breathing, with acute exposures causing eye damage such as reddening of eyelids and conjunctiva as well as stomach and intestinal irritations.

Formaldehyde is a natural chemical produced in the human body and involved in breaking down certain proteins. It’s found both in urine and blood samples from animals and humans at very low concentrations; furthermore it’s found as an ingredient of some foods such as cheese, fruit juices and yoghurt.

Formaldehyde is rapidly absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and metabolised to various substances, including formic acid. Formaldehyde acts as an intermediary in the metabolism of urea and other nitrogenous compounds as well as acting as an amino acid precursor glycine and methionine precursors in the body.

Studies of occupational exposure to formaldehyde have been limited and inconsistent, but most evidence demonstrates no adverse health effects at normal indoor levels of this compound. One large study demonstrated no higher risk of leukaemia among those exposed than among those not exposed (relative risk (RR) 0.17 with 95% confidence intervals 0.06-0.35). (163).

In another meta-analysis of 18 epidemiological studies (175), no statistically significant risk was seen among groups exposed to formaldehyde. Odds ratios (ORs) were much closer to unity than in previous analyses, with no difference seen between American and European studies or occupation types.