A Comprehensive Overview of the Safety of Gel Nail Polish – Do the Health Risks Outweigh the Benefits?
Disclaimer: This article is intended for general discussion and entertainment only and is no substitute for advice from your health care provider. It should in no way be taken as a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your nail health or the safety of gel nail polish, we highly advise seeing a medical health expert. We cannot be held responsible for any damages that result from the use of the information provided on this website.
Gel nail polish is very popular thanks to its ability to not get chipped and cracked as soon as you’ve finished putting it on.
Traditionally, after getting your nails painted, the next 10 minutes involve sitting and doing nothing with your fingers splayed, asking other people to change the TV channel in case the slightest contact with any solid object should ruin your beautifully coated fingers.
Alternatively, you walk out of the salon waving your fingers madly in the air while your other half stumbles behind carrying your bags.
Sure, it’s a handy excuse to get waited on for a bit but it’s also kind of annoying. And it’s even more annoying when somehow you still manage to smudge them on the sofa. Or you chip them later in the day while routing through a handbag or washing up…
Gel nail polish addresses these issues perfectly. It’s incredibly quick to dry and virtually indestructible for weeks afterward. The colors are vibrant too, which leaves just one nagging question: what’s the catch?
Well, according to some sources gel nail polish may not be very good for you…
Let’s see what the experts have to say, shall we?
Gel Nails: Too Good to be True?
As a species, we tend to get suspicious when something comes along and seems like the answer to all of our problems and this is certainly the case with gel nail polish.
While gel polishes have been enjoying a lot of popularity and buzz lately, there are those who recommend you stay away from them. Why? Because it could be damaging to your health. And not just in one way either…
Thin, Brittle Nails
Firstly, gel nail polish might be bad for your nail health and could cause nails to become thinner and more brittle; especially if you’re someone who likes to visit the salon regularly.
The concern comes from the fact that gel nail polish is so thick and heavy.
One professional manicurist, Jenna Hip (who has looked after the nails of celebs like Lea Michele and Miley), suggests that gels could run the risk of blocking oxygen from getting in and out of the nails. Just like your skin, your nails need to be able to transfer oxygen – and gel polish could prevent this from happening properly.
Hipp also explains how gel polish might trap water and thereby lead to other problems.
“As peeling and lifting begin, water can seep into the nail.” she told Teen Vogue. “This can harbor bacteria and possibly cause fungus. Once the peeling phase starts, it’s hard not to pick at your polish. If you rip it off, you’re probably taking some layers of your nail off with it. This kind of damage can take over six months to repair.”
This could also be an issue for other hybrid solutions like shellac.
The Dangers of UV Lights
It’s not just the gel itself that’s the issue though. More potential risks come from the UV lighting that is used in many salons in order to cure the paint.
This could also cause damage to the nail bed according to some experts. Dr. John Humeniuk is among those who have expressed concerns and explained to Fox Carolina how this could also exacerbate damage to the nails, especially due to the fact that they’re first soaked in strong acetone to remove gel residue.
“Through the use of these gels and acrylics, the light will actually cause the original nail plate to separate from the bed and now you have a gap where moisture or bacteria and yeast can grow. So this is actually the bigger problem.”
Berkely Wellness suggests this issue could be even more severe for patients using oral photosensitizing medications such as tetracycline antibiotics, which would increase the likelihood of the nail detaching itself from the nail bed.
Could Gel Nail Polish Cause Cancer?
More concern has also been raised regarding the effect that the UV light could have on our cells. Specifically, there is concern that it might be carcinogenic. This is something that has been picked up by the press following a report published in Archives of Dermatology in 2009 that suggested UV nail lamps could have been a risk factor in two cases of skin cancer affecting the tops of women’s hands.
Later, another study in Journal of Investigative Dermatology, suggested a very low potential theoretical skin cancer risk from using UV nail lamps on a regular basis.
These reports have highlighted the concern regarding UV curing and it’s important to recognize that we are exposed to UV light all the time from the sun and that it is only used for a very small amount of time in the grand scheme of things. In this report it is shown that UV-B output (the damaging type of UV light) is lower from UV lights than it is from natural light. It is the equivalent of spending an additional 17-26 seconds in sunlight each day – so unlikely to cause much damage.
In other words? There’s unlikely to be any significant cancer risk from UV lamps – though it could still prove to be one more nail in the coffin for these treatments (ahem). According to Dr. Susan Taylor, “if you are exposed to ultraviolet light for four to eight minutes every two weeks when you have a el manicure, that can add up to significant exposure.” As a result, she suggests to “apply an SPF 30 or higher sunscreen directly to your hands and fingers after you wash your hands midway through the manicure….and then wear tightly woven cotton gloves with the tips of the fingers cut off” to avoid potential skin cancers on the fingers of hands.
Another thing to consider is that even if cancer isn’t an issue, extensive exposure to UV light could also lead to the appearance of wrinkles of sunspots on the back of the hands. As Hipp explains, “With extended use, dark spots have been reported on the backs of hands.”
Then again, many salons have now moved away from using UV lamps and will use LED lamps instead – even for gel manicures. As one expert, Dr. Adigun explains: “[Gel lamps] do not induce cancer nor do they cause premature aging like UV rays do.” In fact, Dr. Taylor also supports the use LED lamps as an alternative as it does not appear that this “type of light will cause skin cancer.”
LED curing doesn’t result in quite the same long-lasting finish but if you’re worried about long-term effects, it’s an option. So even if UV rays were an issue, there’s a good chance you won’t have to worry about them anyway.
But UV lights aren’t the only concern when it comes to gel nail polish and cancer.
Another issue is that some of the chemicals used in the gel polishes themselves could also potentially be carcinogenic. In particular, a lot of gel polishes use a substance called butylated hydroxyanisol (BHA). This substance is described by the National Toxicology Program as being ‘reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen’. Other concerning chemicals that are commonly used are dibutyl phthalate, toluene and formaldehyde.
You’d think that would be everything, but you would be wrong.
Unfortunately, there are a number of other issues surrounding the use of gel nail polishes. One is concerning another ingredient in certain products: methyl acrylate. Methyl acrylate isn’t harmful in theory but it is known to cause an allergic reaction in some people. This is particularly an issue if you find yourself unconsciously touching your face and eyes during the day.
The process of removing the gel is also a worry. This involves wrapping the nails in acetone again, which is very drying and can further damage the nail and cause it to become thinner.
What’s more is that nails are usually abraded or roughed using an emery board prior to the application of gels. This further increases the likelihood of your nail becoming thin and damaged.
Many of these issues also become more serious if the technician is unskilled or sloppy. The ABC recently reported on a case of nerve damage caused by a bad gel manicure. In this case, the file slipped and damaged the woman’s skin, which allowed the gel manicure powder chemicals to enter the open wound.
Likewise, if you go to a less qualified technician or a less well-recognized salon, then you also increase your chances of getting a nick or scratch during scrubbing, cutting and buffing. Not all ‘professionals’ know how to remove gel nails. This can then lead to a heightened chance of an infection, which is also more likely if the hygiene there isn’t up to scratch.
So, Should You Avoid Gel Manicures From Now On?
With all that said, you might now find yourself seriously doubting whether you should ever get a gel manicure again. It sounds like you’re putting your life on the line every time you go!
Remember though: almost all of these issues are minor concerns and shouldn’t pose much of a threat unless you’re having your hands manicured every single day.
As with most things then, the best advice is most likely: ‘everything in moderation’. If you go overboard and are constantly having your nails filed and polished, you may be exposing yourself to a few moderate risks and you might be negatively impacting the health of your nails. For most people though? It’s a moot point.
Occasionally having getting a gel manicure for a holiday or a special occasion is very unlikely to cause any real damage.
What’s more is that you can actually do a number of things to minimize the potential ‘dangers’ of gel manicures too.
How to Reduce the Damage Caused by Gel Manicures
If you want to keep enjoying the benefits of rapidly drying nails with bold colors but you’re worried about the negative press, then there a number of different things you can do.
While the cancer risk from UV lights is likely to be so minimal as to be not worth mentioning, you can protect yourself even further if you want to by simply applying sun block to your hands before you go to the salon. It’s only your nails that need to be exposed to the light, so there’s no reason not to give your hands a little extra protection if you’re worried. Another tip? Don’t look directly at the light, it can damage your yes otherwise.
Of course, if you’re visiting a salon that uses an LED instead of UV, then you won’t need to worry about this at all.
This PDF from ProBeauty.org explains how to remove gel nails without causing unnecessary damage. The trick is to keep the nails in the acetone for the minimum amount of time rather than the maximum and to very gently rub the gel off subsequently rather than scrubbing it. A good barometer is whether or not it is uncomfortable – when done properly there should be no discomfort and you should avoid using any kind of abrasive. It takes a little longer but it’s much healthier in the long run.
You should also avoid picking at your gel nails or peeling it while you’re wearing it. You can also refer to our guide as well.
Strengthen and Hydrate Your Nails
There are a few things you can do to give your nails a fighting chance. One is to keep them hydrated, which you can often do by soaking them in oils or using moisturisers. Likewise, moisturize your hands and cuticles and give your nails a bit of time to breathe in between manicures. You should also aim to get lots of protein and calcium in your diet to help your body keep those nails strong.
Dr. Adigun explains the benefits of soaking the skin and cuticle immediately after the gel is removed:
“It’s very important that the surrounding skin and cuticle, as well as the nail plate itself, be rehydrated with a thick emollient such as Aquaphor after the soak in order to rehydrate and repair the skin, cuticle, and nails.”
Don’t just go for the first salon and the first product you can find!
When choosing a nail salon, spend some time reading reviews and take a look inside before you pay for a treatment. It’s worth paying a little more too if it means you’re going to get a better quality of manicure, so watch what they’re doing with other people.
If you want to be extra safe, you can even bring your own tools like scissors and nail files to prevent infection. Another tip is not to shave your legs just before you attend, which can increase your chances of infection by opening up your pores.
Likewise, be a little picky when you’re choosing your gel nail polish. Make sure that none of the harmful agents we mentioned are included and again, be willing to pay a little more if necessary.
Stay on Top of Things
Finally, monitor your hands at all times. Look for signs of thinning or damage and if they do occur, just stay away from the salon for a bit.
Ultimately, a lot of this just comes down to common sense. Gel nails themselves are not dangerous, it’s just that they can be a little more severe for your nails than led varnish and especially if you go regularly or visit manicurists who don’t really know what they’re doing. Instead, try gel nail polishes cured by LED lights or gel nail polish at home kits.
Give your nails time off and make sure to keep an eye on how they’re looking!