Most nail polishes are made of nitrocellulose dissolved in a solvent (e.g. butyl acetate or ethyl acetate) and either left clear or colored with various pigments. Basic components included are: film forming agents, resins and plasticizers, solvents, and coloring agents. Adhesive polymers (e.g. tosylamide-formaldehyde resin) ensure the nitrocellulose adheres to the nail's surface. Plasticizers (e.g. camphor) are chemicals that link between polymer chains, spacing them to make the film sufficiently flexible after drying. Pigments and sparkling particles (e.g. mica) add desired color and reflecting characteristics. Thickening agents (e.g. stearalkonium hectorite) are added to maintain the sparkling particles in suspension while in the bottle. Ultraviolet stabilizers (e.g. benzophenone-1) resist color changes when the dry film is exposed to direct sunlight.
Nail polish makers have been under pressure to reduce or eliminate potentially toxic ingredients, including phthalates, toluene, and formaldehyde, from their nail polish. In September 2006, several makers agreed to phase out dibutyl phthalate, which has been linked to testicular problems in lab animals and humans, in updated formulations. Though some makers recently agreed to eliminate formaldehyde from their products, others still use the chemical.
A recent (ca. 2003) development is water-based nail polish, which is based on an acrylic polymer emulsion (e.g. styrene-acrylate copolymer), and pigments similar to those used in watercolor paints. This is marketed as a more environmentally-conscious product, since nail polish is considered a hazardous waste by some regulatory bodies (e.g. Los Angeles Department of Public Works) In this application, the solvent (water) does not completely evaporate as in the case of the traditional nail polish; part of the water is absorbed through the fingernail.
Traditional colors for nail polish are red, all types of pink and flesh-colored shades, although more unusual shades are also available, such as yellow, orange, black and even green. French manicures traditionally mimic the colors of natural nails, with flesh tones on most of the nail and white at the tips. Today, nail polish can be found in nearly every color and shade desired. It is believed that the film Pulp Fiction started a trend for a shade of dark red nail polish during the mid-1990s, after Uma Thurman's character wore Chanel's "Rouge Noir" (known as "Vamp" in the USA) throughout. Black or other very dark nail polish has been popular with goths and punks of both genders since the 1970s, however it has now gained popularity in the mainstream fashion world. Nail polish may also be used to complete an outfit. In this case, women, and occasionally men, match the color of the nail polish to the colors of the clothing.
Some men also wear nail polish (typically fingernail polish). Musicians, particularly of the rock & metal genres, such as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Richard Kruspe, Dave Navarro, Marilyn Manson, Steven Tyler, Kirk Hammett, Brian Molko, Lou Reed, Martin Gore, Davey Havok, Gerard Way, Pete Wentz, Bill Kaulitz, Lauri Ylönen, Jonne Aaron & Sir Christus, Ville Valo, Tuomas Holopainen and Alexi Laiho have been known to wear nail polish - most notably black colored polish. In 1997, the cosmetic company Hard Candy released Candy Man, a nail polish brand aimed specifically at men. It featured colors such as Testosterone (gunmetal grey), Gigolo (silver-specked black), Superman (midnight blue), and Dog (deep purple). Many professional men will choose to follow a pedicure with clear nail polish, although black and other darker colors are gaining popularity with more men.
Some types of polish are advertised to cause nail growth, make nails stronger, prevent nails from breaking, cracking and splitting and stop nail biting. Nail polish may be applied as one of several components in a manicure. However, some kinds of nail treatments contain ingredients such as ammonium hexafluorophosphate.
The base solvent in nail polish remover is usually acetone or ethyl acetate. Acetonitrile has also been used in the past, but is more toxic: two cases have been reported of accidental poisoning of young children by acetonitrile-based nail polish remover, one of which was fatal. Acetonitrile has been banned in cosmetics (including nail polish removers) in the European Economic Area since 2000-03-17.
The remover used with water-based polish is a plant-derived emulsion, and is considered non-toxic and non-hazardous-waste.