What's the Difference Between Acetone and Non-acetone Nail Polish Remover?

By: Rachel Oswald  | 

It has to come off eventually!
It has to come off eventually!
Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty Images

Have you ever stood in the drugstore with chipped nails and stared blankly at all your options for nail polish remover? You're not alone.

The main decision you have to make is whether you want acetone or non-acetone nail polish remover. Here's the simple secret: While acetone will work faster at getting the polish off of your nails, non-acetone removers will be gentler to them.

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So what's in these removers, anyway? Acetone is a clear, harsh-smelling and highly flammable liquid. It's a solvent, capable of disintegrating even plastic. This explains why it works so quickly breaking apart and removing your nail polish. Isopropyl alcohol is typically used in the making of acetone.

The key active ingredient in non-acetone removers is usually ethyl acetate. Made from ethanol and acetic acid, ethyl acetate is colorless and also flammable. In addition to also being used as a solvent, its fragrant smell has led to its use in perfumes.

Most of your nail polish removers are going to include solvents as ingredients. If you can remember your lesson about polymers from high school chemistry class, think of it like this: Your nail polish remover is an organic liquid solvent. Nail polish is a hardened organic polymer. When the remover is applied to the polish, the molecules of the solvent will force their way through the polymer molecules, causing the polish to disintegrate.

Because of acetone's strength as a solvent, it shouldn't be used on your fake nails. The solvent in the polish remover will weaken your extensions and cause them to separate from your natural nail. One of the reasons non-acetone nail polish removers were created was to be used on nail extensions.

But for removing sparkly, glitter nail polish, it's best to go with the big guns -- acetone polish remover. The chemicals in glitter nail polish make it more difficult than other polishes to break down.

If you have strong health concerns about the chemicals used in both acetone and non-acetone polish removers, you should consider switching to a nail polish remover that doesn't use toxic ingredients. There are also many polish removers on the market today that boast of being fully "natural" and biodegradable.

Need more on nail care? Head on over to the next page.

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Originally Published: Nov 3, 2009

Nail Polish Remover FAQs

Is acetone and nail polish remover the same?
Acetone is a colorless solvent found in some nail polish removers. However, not all nail polish removers include acetone. Acetone is, however, the most effective way of removing nail polish.
Is acetone nail polish remover toxic?
Acetone is toxic. However, a small sip of nail polish remover might give you just an upset stomach. But ingesting more than that is very dangerous and can cause headache, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure and rapid heartbeat. It can even cause loss of consciousness, and may even be fatal.
What are acetone nail polish removers made of?
Acetone nail polish removers consist of acetone as the main solvent and some fatty material such as castor oil or lanolin. In contrast, non-acetone polish removers consist of ethyl ketone and nethy or lethyl acetate as their active ingredient.
Is nail polish remover without acetone better?
Non-acetone polish removers are far gentler on the skin and were originally created to be used on nail extensions because acetone made extensions brittle. But To put it simply, non-acetone nail polish removers are less effective at removing polish than acetone.
What can I use instead of acetone?
Ethyl acetate is an organic compound that is used by many manufacturers as a replacement for acetone. You will find that either ethyl acetate or methyl ethyl ketone are used as the main solvent in acetone-free nail polish remover products.

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Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Carefair Ltd. "Nail Polish Removers, Are they Dangerous?" (10/21/09)http://www.carefair.com/beauty/nails/nail_polish_removers_1484.html
  • Joy, Dhanya. "Fingernail polish remover." Buzzle.com. Aug. 31, 2009 (10/21/09)http://www.buzzle.com/articles/fingernail-polish-remover.html
  • Sally Beauty. "What is the difference between acetone and non-acetone nail polish remover? Which is best?" (10/21/09)http://www.sallybeauty.com/What-is-the-difference-between-acetone-and-non-acetone-nail-polish-remover+-Which-is-best/FAQ_NAILS_023,default,pg.html
  • Sipper, R. Ann. "Cutex Quick and Gentle Nail Polish Remover, Non-Acetone vs Nailtiques Non-Acetone Remover with Aloe Vera." Associated Content. Aug. 23, 2006. (10/21/09)http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/53268/cutex_quick_and_gentle_nail_polish.html?cat=69
  • Vadim, Vanessa. "Are there nontoxic nail products?" Mother Nature Network. Oct. 13, 2009. (10/21/09)http://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/beauty-fashion/questions/are-there-nontoxic-nail-products

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