Nearly every woman, and quite a few men too, have used nail polish at some point in their lives. There’s something about decorating nails that’s quite appealing to many people and as it’s harmless, why not? But should people use nail polish freely or are they putting their hands at the potential risk of catching fire? Is nail polish a fire hazard and if so, what should we do about it?
Nail polish is usually flammable, at least when wet. Most nail polishes use an acetone base, which is flammable. However, once the nail polish dries it is usually no longer flammable, though it can still catch fire in some situations.
Let’s take a closer look at what nail polish products are made of and how that can affect their ability to catch fire. Here’s what you need to know.
Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
Table of Contents
What Is Nail Polish?
Nail polish (and it’s sometimes also called nail enamel or nail varnish depending on where you live) is a form of lacquer.
It’s applied to fingernails and toenails to both decorate them and to protect them from damage.
There is no set formula for nail polish and there are continual attempts to improve the mix to prevent it from cracking, scratching or peeling and thus, last longer on the nails.
History From China
Interestingly, the first use of nail polish (at least in recorded history) appears to be nearly 5,000 years old and the people of China would have been painting their nails back in 3,000 BC or so.
It became a big deal with several other Chinese dynasties over the years and in the time of the Ming Dynasty, they used a nail polish made from vegetable dye, beeswax, egg albumen, gum Arabic, and gelatin.
The ancient Egyptians also used nail polish, and, in their society, each social class wore a different color of nail polish (well, shade, anyway as they used henna as the coloring agent of all nail polish back then).
The kind of colored nail polish that they sell in your local pharmacy, however, was only invented in the 1920s.
Then they add plasticizers (to stop it from breaking), dyes and colors, adhesives (to ensure they bond properly with the nail), thickening agents (to maintain the right viscosity of the nail polish), and UV stabilizers (which ensure that your nails don’t change color when you step out into the sunlight).
Most of these ingredients are in fairly short supply, but it is the acetone base and the nitrocellulose base which are flammable.
Why Does It Catch Fire?
Nail polish fires are not so common that you need to spend too much time worrying about them.
However, typically wet nail polish will catch fire if it is exposed to a naked flame and possibly, if it has released enough vapor – it might also catch fire if exposed to a spark of some sort.
Dry nail polish, on the other hand, has lost most of the flammable base (acetone) and is going to be much harder to burn.
Take a look here:
You’d probably have to keep the nail polish in a flame for a few seconds for it to catch fire, and we suspect, that most people are going to pull their hands away from a flame screaming in pain before it ever gets that far.
It is, perhaps, worth noting that nail polish remover is a solution of pure acetone (it remoisturizes and then dilutes the nail polish on your nails) and is thus, very flammable.
You want to avoid using nail polish remover anywhere that there is any change of a naked flame or a spark.
What Happens When It Gets Hot?
It depends on how hot.
Assuming you have nail polish in a sealed jar and the heat is the ordinary heat of the day and it’s not kept in direct sunlight – not very much will happen to it. It’s not that flammable.
However, if you heated the bottle enough, it could eventually turn out a little bit less fortunate as we will soon see.
For dry nail varnish, it is possible for sunlight and humidity to have an impact on the shade of your nail varnish or even to cause it to lift from the nail.
This video shows how nail polish can change color and eventually ignite with enough heat:
Will It Explode In Heat or In a Car?
If the bottle gets hot enough, yes, nail polish can explode, and it won’t necessarily be on fire when it does so.
The acetone releases vapor. When you heat the bottle, the vapor expands and will eventually “blow up” the bottle.
It’s unlikely but, in theory, if you left nail polish in a hot car in direct sunlight – it could get hot enough to explode.
What About Gel Nail Polish?
Old formulas of gel nail polish may be flammable but those made in recent years are no longer flammable. Of course, gel nail polish is harder to work with and many people will only use it in a salon setting.
What About Acetone?
Acetone is highly flammable and it’s very easy to start a fire with it.
This video shows just how flammable:
You should always keep acetone in a cool, dry place and in a tightly sealed container. When you use it, you should try to work with it in a well-ventilated space and only for as long as absolutely necessary.