Is Nail Polish Biodegradable? (Not Really…)

Pedicures and manicures are essential for full-body grooming. They make you look hygienic and beautify your physical outlook. So, who wouldn’t want to give adequate attention to that?

As such, we find ourselves burning through tons of nail polish and their bottles. Reliable sources say that women have used about 100 million-plus nail polish bottles in 2021 alone. Now, think about how many have been consumed in the last decade.

In addition to all these, nail polish has become a fashion statement that every gender uses now. Some start with a transparent option and move on to more noticeable colors.

So, now that everyone uses nail polish, it’s expected that the demand in this market will increase, which begs the question of its effects on the environment.

If you’re curious about that, then please read on. In this blog post, we’ll see if nail polish is biodegradable, consider the effects of nail polish on our environment together and discover the most environmentally sustainable ways to dispose of our empty containers or unwanted nail polish. Enjoy!

Does Nail Polish Biodegrade?

Biodegradable materials are safer for the environment. They break down fast and will positively contribute to the environment by fortifying the soil with nutrients or serving as fertilizer for plants. These materials also take away the burden that the non-biodegradable ones leave on the environment because they dissipate entirely.

That’s why it’s vital that most products we produce and consume be biodegradable. So, does nail polish qualify as biodegradable?

Well, it depends on what it’s made from. Products made from natural materials break down faster compared to artificial ones.

To answer whether nail polish is biodegradable or not, we can say conventional polish isn’t. Here’s why.

Nail polish is essentially a spruced-up polymer, which contains the “big three” chemicals that are terrible for the environment. These include toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate.

Other materials give acrylic or gel paint their sheen and plasticity, i.e., the plastic material you can sometimes peel off your nails. Some of them are camphor, triphenylphosphate, and tribezonate, to name a few.

All these materials are artificial and are composed of toxic chemicals which are bad for you, your manicurist, and the environment. These chemicals won’t break down fast, and when they break down into smaller particles, they remain in the environment.

How Long Does It Take for Nail Polish to Biodegrade?

We mentioned earlier that biodegradable materials break down faster than non-biodegradable ones. However, that doesn’t mean the non-biodegradable ones won’t eventually break down. They certainly will, but it takes longer for their decomposition to occur.

In addition, non-biodegradable materials like nail polish require time, extreme heat, and moisture to break them down. Once these factors are present, decomposition will occur at a much slower rate.

It’s important to remember that nail polish is made from plastic, and when your nail polish chips away, you may be releasing microplastics into the environment.

So, nail polish or microplastics can take anywhere between 20 years to 5 centuries to break down. Of course, you can expect that microplastics will break down faster because they are smaller and require less work.

However, there’s another caveat. Non-biodegradable materials never break down completely. Instead, materials like nail polish leave microplastics in the environment. As a result, the plants or soil that would otherwise welcome the decomposed bits of biodegradable materials won’t absorb the microplastics.

If anything, they’re dangerous for the environment because of the toxins contained in plastic. When they remain in contact with the environment, they can be quite harmful in the long run.

Is Nail Polish Harmful to the Environment?

You may wonder if nail polish is harmful to the environment since it’s a product that has a high demand and consumption. In addition, it comes in small bottles, so it’s not a material that you can buy once and use for a long time. Instead, you have to consume many colors, and subsequently, many bottles.

So, is this cosmetic product harmful to the environment? Well, it certainly is. Nail polish is made from several toxic materials. It’s plastic but in melted form. That’s why any slight exposure to air can solidify it. But, of course, that’s when it’s in a small quantity.

Why is nail polish harmful to the environment? Again, it’s because of the materials it’s made from. We mentioned earlier that nail polish has “the big three” chemicals, which aren’t good for the environment.

Aside from its components, the way it’s applied is also a problem. These days, there are acrylic and gel polishes.

Gel polish requires UV light rays to dry them faster. So, of course, this manicure or pedicure choice lasts longer too, but it’s exposing you to harmful rays.

Again, these rays eventually find their way to the atmosphere and further damage the ozone layer. You may believe that the rays aren’t potent enough to wreak any havoc, but when millions of people use these rays to dry off their manicures or pedicures, you can imagine the number of rays the ozone layer will have to deal with.

There’s also the container that manufacturers use to make package nail polish. They mostly come in glass bottles, but the covers are made from plastic, and the same goes for the brush that you or your manicurist uses to apply the paint.

Of course, you can dispose of a glass bottle properly – recycling is a reliable option. The same goes for the plastic cover and applicator. However, when you fail to follow the suitable medium to dispose of these materials, you’re harming the environment.  

Now, aside from applying nail polish and the packaging material, the decomposition process is another aspect that harms the environment.

You see, when materials like plastics are breaking down in the environment, they release an array of toxic gases into the atmosphere. That’s because plastics are made from a combination of chemicals, which will dissipate when they are exposed to extreme heat.

Aside from the toxic gases that nail polish releases into the atmosphere, it also leaves microplastics in the environment. Microplastics are incapable of breaking down because they have broken down to the smallest size plastic is capable of achieving, so they’ll stay in the environment infinitely.

There’s another caveat – moving these microplastics from one place to another is possible. This occurs when you step on them or when the breeze blows them. They can travel as far as miles away before eventually settling somewhere and causing harm to the soil and plants.

Is it Okay to Throw Away Nail Polish?

Throwing away nail polish is sometimes inevitable. For one, you may be tired of the color – maybe you bought the wrong shade by mistake. Alternatively, you may have abandoned it for so long, causing it to dry up. Of course, dried-up nail polish isn’t useful, so you’ll have to dispose of it.

However, we advise that you look into alternate methods of disposing of your nail polish because they are hazardous and explosive and certainly bad for the environment.

The chemicals contained in nail polish are flammable, and when they are exposed to extreme heat, they can catch on fire. So, when you throw your nail polish in the garbage, it may end up in landfills.

When that happens, you can only expect that they’ll sit there until they either decompose or catch on fire. Now, imagine a fire starting on a landfill – it can get out of hand, especially when it contacts other flammable materials, which we can typically find there.

Alternatively, it may simply sit around for centuries. You see, most times, throwing away nail polish involves leaving it in the bottle with the plastic cover.

Now, glass is made from sand and clay and goes through extreme heat to make it clear and strong. It’s not harmful to the environment, but you can imagine how long it’ll take for such material to break down. When the glass breaks, it could also be dangerous for landfill workers.

On the other hand, the plastic cover is harmful to the environment. As we mentioned earlier, it could take centuries for plastic to decompose. Toxins will be released into the atmosphere during the process, and melting plastic will remain on the soil.

There are also microplastics to deal with. Again, they travel far, fast, and quickly because of their lightweight. This means they can move from the landfills to our water bodies and pollute them. Alternatively, they can find their way to the air, and when we inhale too many microplastics, that can be dangerous.

So, instead of throwing your nail polish away, read on to find extraordinary ways to dispose of them.

Can you Pour Nail Polish Down the Drain?

Nail polish is usually in a thick, liquid form. That’s what makes application easy and drying even easier. Of course, that’s excluding acrylic polish, which is originally in powdered form but becomes liquified when your manicurist applies it.

Now, when you grow tired of particular nail polish, you may think about pouring it down the drain. After all, it’s in a liquid form and could easily qualify as household water waste. In contrast, that’s a wrong and not so great idea.

If you do this, the nail polish will make its way down the sewer system and may end up polluting water bodies. We bet you already know that we purify our water waste and make it suitable for consumption or the production of other materials.

It becomes unsafe for further processing and consumption when it has some nail polish components in it. So, it’s best to seek other ways to dispose of it.

Can Nail Polish be Used as Paint?

Have you ever wanted to spruce up an item, say your phone or some other case? If you have, you may have considered using nail polish. We bet it worked because it’s possible to use nail polish as paint.

Beyond your phone case, books, and vanity tables, to name a few, there’s almost no material that you can’t use nail polish to paint.

It’s great for fabrics, metals, plastic, wood, and just about anything. However, before you get to work, we suggest you place some polish on a small part of the material you want to paint to see if it’s suitable and absorbs the paint well.

How do You Dispose of Nail Polish?

How do you dispose of an empty bottle of nail polish or a bottle you’ve grown tired of? Well, for the bottle that still contains some nail polish, you can pour the liquid content into a newspaper and let it solidify.

Then, you can leave the cover off to let the remnant in the bottle solidify. Afterward, you can throw both the newspaper and the nail polish container into the trash can.

On the other hand, if it’s already solidified in the bottle, you can dispose of it by taking it to your Household Hazardous Waste Facility, which you can find on the internet, or by asking those in your neighborhood.


Nail polish is a product that we consume at a high rate. As such, it’s best to consider its impact on the environment and look into safe ways to dispose of it.

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About Rinkesh

A true environmentalist by heart ❤️. Founded Conserve Energy Future with the sole motto of providing helpful information related to our rapidly depleting environment. Unless you strongly believe in Elon Musk‘s idea of making Mars as another habitable planet, do remember that there really is no 'Planet B' in this whole universe.