My allergy – Nail Polish

Nail polish/varnish has been worn (mostly) by women since 3000BC. Queen Cleopatra is said to have used natural ingredients such as mixed oil, Arabic gum, powder and henna to paint her nails red. It was said that the stronger shade of red the person wore, the more powerful the person. Similarly, the Chinese used a polish made from Arabic gum, gelatin, egg whites and beeswax. In the 19th century people began to massage tinted powders and creams into their nails and buff them shiny with, for example, Graf’s Hyglo nail polish paste. Cutex (from their product cuticle extract) produced the first nail modern nail polishes in 1917 with the introduction of their coloured nail glosses.

Many brands of nail polish are now water-based but the majority of nail polishes contain nitrocellulose dissolved in butyl acetate which is considered less environmentally friendly. Magnus Levy was the first person to prepare a synthetic material which formed a resin by condensation of formaldehyde and toluenesulfonamide in 1893.

Formaldehyde                     Toluenesulfonamide


The reason I am writing this blog post is because I am allergic to a lot of nail polishes and have to be very careful which ones I wear. More specifically, I get eczema (very itchy, painful, dry skin) around my eyelids and mouth. The doctors were pretty clueless about what was causing my unattractive eczema/dermatitis, but fortunately, my oh so smart twin sister, who was a medical student at the time, informed me that she had read an article saying that the nail hardening resins in nail polish can cause eczema, particularly around the eye.

There are a number of articles describing contact dermatitis as a result of nail polish use with at least 80 % of these cases being dermatitis of the face and every second case being dermatitis of the eyelid  (Contact Dermatitis 1995, 33, 157-164). There have been many reported cases of nail polish induced dermatitis but it is unclear exactly which ingredient in nail polish is actually to blame for my own dermatitis but toluenesulfonamideformaldehyde polymer resin is thought to be the main cuplrit (Contact Dermatitis 2007, 57, 277) with formaldehyde and nitrocellulose possibly also causing problems. There are many, many ingredients in nail polishes, such as pigments, thickeners and stabilisers, which may also cause issues.


The MSDS for toluenesulfonamideformaldehyde resin says that skin and eye contact may cause skin irritation and it may be harmful by inhalation, ingestion, or skin absorption. There may also have traces of formaldehyde which is an irritant and sensitizer but it is usually only found in levels below 0.20% in nail polishes (Contact Dermatitis 1997, 37, 155-162). I frequently use formaldehyde in the lab and have never had a bad reaction to it so this is unlikely to be the source of my irritation, although I do wear gloves.

I have found that, as long as I stay away from nail polishes containing formaldehyde resins, which are usually in nail polishes that are designed to strengthen the nail, I am fine. The problem is that many nail polishes do not have a full list of ingredients in so I just err on the side of caution and do not buy any nail polish that advertises nail hardening. I hope one day that there is a cheap, pretty alternative to toluenesulfonamideformaldehyde resin based nail polishes so I can paint my nails itch and worry free!

Chemical & Engineering News, August 11, 2008, p. 42, “Nail Polish”

Actas Dermosifiliogr., 2009, 100, 53‑60

27 thoughts on “My allergy – Nail Polish

  1. Hi Jess,

    This was a really interesting article as my girlfriend has just been told that she is allergic to nail varnish, she has eczema and has suffered break outs around her eyes at what seemed random times.

    We’ve been looking at nail varnishes which might be less harmfull, she doesn’t want to give up nail varnish.

    Can you recommend any brands/websites to check out?

    Cheers for any advise in advance!


    • I just look for any that don’t have formaldehyde type resins in. They should say that they do on the ingredients. I tend to stay away from nail strengthening/hardening ones but I do still wear nail polish so I am sure she can too!

  2. My allergy takes a very awful course of about a week once it starts. I put on formaldehyde free polish day 1, day 2 i feel pressure in my eye lids, day 3 i wake up with very swollen lids and start taking benadryl or someting and then my eyes look horrible for days, dry skin swelling burning, I cant wear eye make up its awful! nothing helps! It just seems to have to run its course! I can wear polish on my toes without any problem. My guess is because my toes don’t touch my eyes LOL! 2 of my children have sevearve pea-nut and tree-nut allergys but seem to be fine with wearing nail polish! I wish theres was a brand that didnt seem to affect me. I wore Revoln for years because it was form. and tourm. free but that brand now has an affect to. I put some on last night before bed as it has been about a year since i have worn any polish but my lids felt tight this morning an i took it off right away! Aurg! Any one have a brand they recomend? Thanks Rachelle

    • I have exactly the same symptoms as you Rachelle. I was advised that the Jessica brand would be ok – and it is!!!! I tried the new Clinique one a few days ago as it says it is fine for people allergic to nail varnish, but my eyes started swelling so I took it off and I’m going to return it and contact Clinique. I wish I knew what exact ingredient it is that caused the allergic reaction. Good luck with trying the Jessica range
      Sarah x

  3. I am so happy I found your article! I have the same symptoms for weeks and I could not figure out what was causing them. Skin around my eyes look terrible and really nothing helped. Then last Saturday I took off my nail strenghtening nail polish and had no time to put a new one for 2 days and then i noticed the condition of the skin around my eyes improved but I did not think it could have something to do with it. Then I put the strenghtening nail polish on and everything started all over again so I thought “Could it be…?” So I looked on the Internet and found your article and all the comments. Thank you very much everyone for sharing your experience. I was already thinking about buying the Clinique nail polish so I’m glad Sarah wrote about her experience with it. Thank you. Magdalena

  4. THIS just happened to me and everything online made me think I was eating unhealthy or allergic to something. Then I saw one random comment about toenail polish and I switched to a nail polish I got at Whole Foods and the eczema has all but disappeared in just 2-3 days. I’m never buying Milani nail polish ever again!

  5. I just turned 60 and for 40 years, I have dealt with being allergic to nail polish. Same symptoms, around my eyes. I wear Zoya polish on my toes, and it is fine. I have even tried the gel but with time, my eyes start itching and get puffy. The Clinique does not work either. I just get a manicure and have my nails buffed. My Dr. said since your eyes are the most sensitive it affects them when you are touching your face. I love pretty nails but not worth the eye problems.

  6. The Zoya is exactly what I got from WF and my eczema disappeared. I have never experienced any eczema symptoms in my life until I put the Milani nail polish on my toes.

  7. Having the same problems. Out of nowhere I developed eyelid eczema about 6 weeks ago and I thought it was down to a new Illamasqua eyeshadow I had bought (I’ve been fine with their other products) and tried all sorts but most things just exacerbated the problem. I removed the nail polish I was wearing at the time and eventually it all but cleared up having used Shea Butter (an absolute godsend) to heal the cracked, raw skin. I still had two weird dry patchy areas in the crease but had been mositurising this area regularly. I braved wearing nail polish on Friday and by Saturday morning my eyes were awful again. I removed the polish straight away and slapped on a load of mosituriser and risked wearing eye makeup (I had an event to go to so couldn’t/wouldn’t go without makeup!) but when I removed my eye makeup my eyelids were so so sore, one had cracked and even bled a little bit. Going out of my wits because everything seems to worsen it and I can’t pinpoint any specific ingredient. The nail polish was Barry M – their topcoat/basecoat and two different black ones (matte and glossy). As far as I can tell though they are all 3 free. I’ve been looking at the ingredients on the Barry M page and am still none the wiser. I’d been using this brand for years without any problem. Don’t know what else to do. I’d been all set for starting up my own beauty blog and can’t now because of reacting to anything that goes on my nails or eyes :/.

    • Sorry you are having this problem….I have tried everything but can’t do nail polish. I wear Zoya on my toes. I get a manicure and have my nails buffed. My Dr. said it has to be Hypoallergenic..not Dermatologist tested, like Clinique is. You just need to go without nail polish until your eyes clear up. I wish I had more positive news to tell you but after dealing with this 40 years, I just gave up and have natural nails. Ask any questions, cause I have tried it all!

  8. Hi Melinda, thanks for your input :). Tbh I don’t even know if it definitely is nail polish but I’m going to follow that advice anyway and just go completely without until it’s all healed again. If it’s any other makeup product I don’t know what I’ll do :/.

  9. Hi
    I’m 23 years old and I’m allergic to nail polish since I’m 18!
    I have the same symptoms , such as swollen eyes and face and ear rashes. I paint my toe nails with no problem but never my hand nails. For a while I didn’t know what was causing that reaction but once I figured it out it made seance . I did a research in it and the problem was that I used to bite on my nails or eat the nail polish which made my blood got poison and I went to the doctors and they then detected my allergy .
    However , if I us UV gel the think one and I use gloves for a day or 2 I’m fine .

  10. I have just developed nail polish allergy – bruised nail plates and lifting of nails and peeling skin around. This is after 30 years of wearing polish, extensions and most recently gel nails. I really suffered with pain and tingling in the finger tips but fortunately settling now. I am left with what looks like fungal marks down the nail and sensitivity. I will be looking at the reduced chemical alternatives you mention above when my nails have recovered. Incidentally, I have a child with severe allergies too – I guess there is the genetic allergy link occurring too.

    • I just had the same thing happen. I’ve been wearing polish for over 25 years. Last pedicure – the polish was removed and I was so upset. My nails were stained yellow, the corners of my big toes have lifted off the nail bed. My toes just feel sensitive. Saw a dermatologist who said no pedicures, no polish. I’m going back in two months of him to look at it. Had taken my nails down to the point that he couldn’t get a sample without hurting me. Could the pedicure have been too aggressive? Possibly…..but I can’t help but notice my fingernails were splitting horizontally. So I am now without polish and trying to learn how to do my own nails.

  11. Ariel, I think I have the same thing as you, how do you know it’s an allergy? Peeling skin under nails, nails lifting, tingling nail bed. I used to wear nail varnish every day 10 years ago, now it’s 3 or 4 times a year and this is the result each time. My nails look so ugly and take weeks to reattach properly. What can I do?

    • My doctor said it must be an allergy.He tested for a fungal infection, and it came back negative, so I think he is right. It is 3 weeks on now but they still look hideous. I am most concerned that they won’t reattach, but fingers crossed… I think, when they have improved, I will try one nail at a time with the low chemical formulations and hope for the best. I don’t know what else to do. Let me know if you find a solution.

  12. Finally, they are growing again! It has been months of painful fingertips, but now I intend to try some vegan polishes systematically to see if I can find a safe brand. Wish me luck!

    • So happy you’re having success with your nails growing again. I started taking GNC’s Be Beautiful hair, skin and nails – having a lot of success with this. My nails are vastly improving!! Let me know if you find a safe brand. I have a wedding coming up and would love to do my nails but again extremely hesitant. I’m short and polish free right now.

  13. Hi guys, I had a severe allergic reaction to polish a few years back. It started with water blisters around the cuticles and traveled up my hands/nails. I also went to the dr. who said he didn’t know what it was. Only when i took the polish off did it turn around. The healing process was brutal when the fluid in my hands dried and my hands then cracked and some bled. I did not have any issues with my eyes. Now years later i’ve tried gel, no problem. I then tried polish again and my cheeks began to itch and fingers swell. I am going to try different brands to see which i ‘feel’ the allergic rx startng. I CAN WEAR ANY POLISH ON MY TOES> this seems to be common, but i dont know why its ok there? maybe the skin is thicker and doesn’t get into blood stream?

  14. Hello! I have the same symptoms as you, eczema around my eyes and mouth. Have been to the dermatologist who said it might be an allergy to nail polish. Haven’t used any in about one month but still have outbreaks around my eyes and mouth, and my eyes are still a little swollen. It’s not as bad as it was before, but i think it got better because i started using oats to clean my face and it really calms my skin down. So, my question is.. is it possible that I’m allergic to an ingredient in nail polish and somehow still have the ingredient present in my body?
    Thank you

    • When I had outbreaks, it did take a bit of time for the eyes to heal completely. I just started using Gabrielle nail polish, I use clear on my fingers and the colored polish on my toes and I have not had any problems. It works best for me not to put any color on my fingernails. Hope this helps.

  15. A few years ago I would apply nailpolish on my fingernails and the skin around the nail would be swollen, red and itchy. Toes didn’t affect me. Now it has reversed – the skin around my toenails are red, swollen and itchy. Could this be an allergic reaction to something in the polish itself? Thanks!

  16. Hi, i dont know if mine could be some kind of allergy also because of nail polish. mine just started one day, i had nice growing nails and all of a sudden they became thin and broke in one day. i also noted that some of my nails looked like they were swollen, like a burn on the nail.
    please help what do you think this could be. i use a lot of nail polish on my nails, all kinds and nail strengthners.

  17. It’s strange because I was never allergic till I was in high school . I have the same reactions as Rachelle but I’m not brave enough to try different polishes because I just don’t want to risk it all and even so I have tried many nail polishes and within a couple hours I’m already turning red . When I didn’t know what I was allergic to it was so hard things got complicated because id wake up everyday more and more swollen and allergy medication didn’t work just put me to sleep. Eventually my face was so bad I didn’t even come out of my room anymore because I didn’t want to be seen. Anyway now a says I’m so tainted by this experience that I’m paranoid about nailpolish I don’t experiment with it at all. Lol I do miss it so I just do my sister’s nails instead

  18. I work in the beauty industry, so naturally doing my nails is a weekly/fortnightly thing. After years of wearing normal polish, i stepped it up and got myself a shellac kit that was probably shipped from china – however, after 4th application i developed contact dermatitis (CD). Only a few tiny blisters….so the stubborn person that i am, i kept using shellac, only a couple of tiny blisters each time…..until just recently…i have learnt my lesson. The CD got so bad that i developed a skin infection that i needed antibiotics for, and because i have a stressed out immune system already……i got thrush…..down there……yeah………i learnt my lesson……now the fun begins where i am very cautiously looking for an alternative. On top of that my fingers were swelling, i had torn skin, it was painful, bleeding and downright ugly. And now not even the regular nail polish goes well with me, i tried some of my normal nail polish and saw one blister and freaked. Off it went! While i loved shellac, i am not sure there is an alternative that gives shellac results….CND, Gelish and all of those popular brands??? Surely they have chemicals too that would probably make me react. And I don’t have the option of maybes and i’ll see what works, i need to make sure that i don’t go through this horror again. Anyone who’s had severe CD like me and able to find some products that will work. I’ve been researching ‘nail wraps’ but there’s a lot of ingredients that sound iffy, the only true alternative i can see is those ‘water’ based nail polishes, but even then I haven’t done a lot of research and i’d prefer real life accounts. Any and all experiences i welcome – as this girl just can’t go with her nails bare after 11 years of nail polish!

  19. Thank you, thank you for posting this! I’m dealing with the swollen face as we speak and have always thought it had something to do with nail polish! Gels don’t bother me but even the formaldehyde free ones do. I thought I was crazy 🙂 Glad I’m not the only one!

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