I was recently asked a question on Twitter about nail varnish remover.   The question was asking why some brands are taking acetone/ ethyl acetate out of the formulation and what if anything are they replacing it with?  Feeling that it would be rude not to answer I got twittering…..

The Science of Nail Polish Removers

So, first things first, what is it that we are trying to remove?

Chemistry 101 states that in the world of solvents and making things disappear, like dissolves like!  That means that if we want to take our nail polish off we have to find a solvent that is chemically similar so that it will dissolve the lacquer. 

Nail varnishes contain the following types of ingredients (in order of approx volume):

  • Solvents – This is the bit that everything else swims in. It keeps the product fluid and affects its drying time.
  • Film forming resins – these are the chemicals that set like a skin on top of your nail and give the polish shine and durability. They also affect the film flexibility.
  • Diluents – these are the chemicals that the pigments get diluted into.
  • Plasticisers – this is the chemical that makes the film formers flexible enough to paint on and gives it the plastic coating look.
  • Pigments – giving the colour.
  • Thickening agent – This helps to thicken things up so that the lacquer doesn’t slip off the nail and spread too thinly.
  • UV protective agents/ sparkles/ preservatives/ fragrance etc. For extra effects and product protection.

 So which bit does a nail varnish remover attack?

That would be the nitrocellulose my dear!   Yes people, you are walking around with an explosive layer on your nails and it is this chemical that we need to thin down in order to break the film.  Nitrocellulose enables the formation of a breathable and flexible film on the nail, the other film formers help to prevent the nitrocellulose film  from being too brittle and thin.  Nitrocellulose is easily removed by an acetone/ water mix and so that is why most nail polish removers contain it.

So why are these chemicals  being removed?

Well, acetone is a very cheap and pretty ‘safe’ solvent as such. However,  it is still a solvent and as such is quite drying and irritating to the skin.  It is also usually derived from petrochemicals or other ‘non-natural’ chemical sources and so is no good for ‘green’ brands. Ethyl acetate is a little milder on the skin and has therefore gained in popularity but it is not so good at removing nail polish and it is also not natural so what you gain in mildness you loose in performance and un-naturalness.

So we have a less than ideal situation on our hands!

Those looking for a more natural way to remove their nitrocellulose (sounds a bit odd now doesn’t it) do have options and these options are based on two things:

  1. The natural origin of raw materials.
  2. Materials that are kinder to the skin.

Some alternatives to acetone are things like methyl or ethyl lactate (a natural ester from milk that is also a mild solvent), limonene (natural solvent sourced from oranges – very similar to turpentine spirits which are also used as paint thinners) and 4-methylpentan-2-one ( a fruity smelling natural acid mix that could dissolve the film if contact time is long enough. This is a ketone just like acetone).

The final word.

So, there are many alternatives to acetone and ethyl acetate in the world of nail polish removal but as far as ‘traditional’ nail varnishes are concerned it is the acetone type remover that will work the best.  The more natural removers will have to contain quite a lot of the ‘active’ ingredient in order to work which in turn could end up making them quite irritating. Catch 22!

There are some more ‘natural’ nail polish formulations out there nowadays that can be removed by these more gentle cleansers though so my advice is if you want a ‘natural’ remover, use a ‘natural’ polish.

In addition to all of that nail polishes have changed over the last few years and many of them have removed things like formaldehyde (preservative) and Dibutyl Pthalate (a resin plasticisers).  As the base resin changes chemically, the remover must also and that is another reason why your old remover may not work as well with your new polish.

It’s all chemistry. Enjoy!