A Review of Nail Polish: The Industrial Cosmetic

May 1, 2011 | Contact Author | By: Frank C. Pagano, PhD, Chanel Inc.
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Title: A Review of Nail Polish: The Industrial Cosmetic
Nail polishx nitrocellulosex dispersionx colorx pigmentx film-formersx plasticizersx
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Keywords: Nail polish | nitrocellulose | dispersion | color | pigment | film-formers | plasticizers

Abstract: In the present article, nail polish is reviewed for its function as a decorative coating for the nails. In addition, formulation requirements are described to assist nail polish developers in achieving both the desired decorative effects as well as the necessary performance as a coating.

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F Pagano, A Review of Nail Polish: The Industrial Cosmetic, Cosm & Toil 126(5) 372 (2011)

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The phrase industrial cosmetic may seem like an oxymoron, however, it applies perfectly to nail polish. Nail polish differs from other cosmetics in its roles as both a decorative cosmetic and a coating to resist a variety of challenges to its integrity. While nail polish, also referred to as nail enamel or nail lacquer, is a development of the 20th century, the idea of decorating nails goes back as far as the ancient Egyptians in 1500 B.C.1 and the Chinese in 3000 B.C.2 The Egyptians used henna to color nails, with dark reds and crimson being reserved for women of the highest social order. The Chinese also decorated their nails using herbal extracts and a “lacquer” made from gum arabic, egg whites, gelatin and beeswax. Like the Egyptians, the Chinese reserved dark colors such as red and black for royalty.

Generally, methods to apply color to the nails have mimicked the available technologies for coatings at given periods of time. For instance, before the 1920s, most women pursued a polished look by massaging tinted powders and creams into their nails, then buffing them for shine. The development of automobile paint in 1920, however, provided the genesis for modern nail polish since, until then, there was no way to impart long-lasting colored film on the nails. Michelle Menard is generally credited as the first person to develop nail polish based on automobile paint. Since then, nail polish formulations have evolved to provide a platform for the variety of nail colors and effects desired by the consumer.

Before discussing how nail polish is formulated to achieve the desired performance, this article will review the variety of materials that impart color and effects in nail polish.

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Table 1. Organic Lakes commonly used in nail polish

D&C Red No. 6 Barium Lake Clean, yellow red
D&C Red No. 7 Blue red
D&C Red No. 34 Deep Maroon
FD&C Yellow No. 5 Aluminum Lake "Egg yolk" color

Figure 1. Shades of nail polish

Shades of nail polish

Today’s personal care market hosts an endless variety of nail polish shades, as shown in Figure 1, from simple crèmes to complex shades using pigments and combinations of effect pigments.

Figure 2. Interference pearl schematic

Figure 2. Interference pearl schematic

Interference pearls produce their effects through light refraction, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 3. The nitrocellulose reaction

Figure 3. The nitrocellulose reaction

It is made by reacting cotton or wood pulp with a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids, as shown in Figure 3.

Formula 1. Crème nail polish

Suspension Base 85.00% w/w
N-Butyl Acetate 7.00
D&C Red No. 7 Calcium Lake (dispersion) 3.75
FD&C Yellow No. 5 Aluminum Lake (dispersion) 1.00
Titanium Dioxide (dispersion) 2.00
Red Iron Oxide (dispersion) 1.00
Iron Blue (dispersion) 0.25

Formula 2. Frost nail polish

Suspension Base 85.00%w/w
N-Butyl Acetate 7.00
Stearalkonium Hectorite (dispersion) 2.00
Bismuth Oxychloride (dispersion) 5.00
Iron Oxides (and) Mica 1.00
Red Iron Oxide (dispersion) 0.20
Black Iron Oxide (dispersion) 0.05


Formula 3. Suspension base

Low Viscosity Nitrocellulose 9.00% w/w
High Viscosity Nitrocellulose 9.00
Modifying Resin 10.00
Plasticizer 9.00
Stearalkonium Hectorite 1.00
UV Absorber 0.10
N-Butyl Acetate 35.00
Ethyl Acetate 26.80
Propylene Carbonate 0.10

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