For busy women, gel nail polishes are the Holy Grail: Like they were bestowed with some special power, gel nail polishes last at least two weeks longer than regular nail polish. As I can tell you from personal experience, they don't chip, they don't peel, and they look glorious for weeks at a time. Mine were ten shiny, sparkly red reminders that I had made [what I thought to be] a spectacular splurge on myself for a full three weeks. Yet, by that same token, gel nail polishes are drawing a great deal of controversy. A press release from the March 1, 2013 meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology clearly states that gel manicures "can cause nail thinning associated with brittleness, peeling, and cracking." Some thoughts to consider:
After gel polishes are applied, there is a UVA light applied to the surface to "cure," or set, the polish. The UVA light emitted is only 10-30 Watts, which is about 200x less than the 2400 watts or so emitted by a tanning bed. According to Monroe-interviewed dermatologist Dr. Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., this wattage isn’t strong enough to merit concern in one treatment. On the other hand, consistency presents a concern. If you get gel polishes every three weeks for a year, that's 14 polishes, or exposure to about 280 Watts of UV light. And if you kept it up for 10 years, that's theoretically like one session for your hands in a tanning bed. Considering the two places you can first tell a woman's age are her neck and her hands, I know that I personally take precautions. Two methods: First, slather on a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. If you are using a formula containing zinc or titanium oxide, this works instantly as a physical block, effectively shielding UV rays. On the other hand, chemical-based sunscreens like avobenzone, oxybenzone, Parsol 1789 and others take 30 minutes to absorb into the skin in order to be effective. So make sure that you wait the proper length of time (at least 30 minutes) when pre-applying a chemical-based sunscreen. Second, wear gloves to the salon with the finger tips cut off. Yes, this is a little Michael Jackson circa 1988, but getting a little gloved for an hour in a salon is better than being wrinkled long-term. You can even buy them, think something like Royal Nail Anti-UV Gloves ($5.95). Even better: Get an at-home gel kit like any of the the Sally Hansen Salon Pro Gel Starter Kits ($68.57), and then you don't have to let strangers see your gloved hands!
Despite the fact much of the media has lead us to believe any chemical with a name longer than two syllables will give us cancer, methylacrylate is not associated with cancer. On the other hand, methylacrylate is associated with an increased risk of contact dermatitis (Journal of Contact Dermatitis, 1991; Contact Dermatitis, 1995; Contact Dermatitis, 2006). According to Dr. Susan Taylor, M.D., author of Rx for Brown Skin, "Wherever [methacrylate] comes into contact with the skin, a rash may develop. Because we inadvertently touch our eyes throughout the day, the rash can also involve our eyelids. The rash from methylacrylate is usually red, itchy, bumpy and uncomfortable. It may last a week or two. Removing the polish and treating the skin with a cortisone cream will clear the rash." Rumors on the internet say that methacrylate will cause shortness of breath as well, but again, you have to ingest - not apply - a lot of methacrylate. (For the record, plain old water will cause toxicity in the average person if you drink over 200 ounces per day without a corresponding increase in activity). So don't be too concerned about methacrylate and shortness of breath. Be concerned about contact dermatitis! Bottom line: Avoid polishes with methylacrylate. I like Sephora Gel Shine ($17.50), which is methacrylate-free.
My response to this one is "Maybe." I feel like some websites are "scraping" for increased traffic with this one. With acrylic nails, the nails are filed to a thin crisp, before adherent and gel are subsequently applied. Similarly, even with regular nail polish, skilled manicurists tend to buff the nail bed several times before applying polish. Either way, it is certain that gel polishes will lay over top of the scrape for longer than traditional polishes would. While some experts argue this may cause infection, the opposite is also true: As anyone who has ever worn acrylic nails can tell you, it's the cracks in the polish through which nails become infected most. Water, bacteria, fungi, and other agents seep through these cracks and tend to be trapped between the nail polish and the nail bed, leading to bacterial and fungal infections. So, theoretically, wearing a nail polish that doesn't chip (like gel polish) could actually prevent certain nail infections. On the other hand, if you are immunocompromised or have a pre-existing nail infection, using gel polish and trapping the infection against the nail is a terrible idea. This one all depends on your health, the time your hands spend in water (or near infectious agents), and your history of nail infections.
If you are immunocompromised or have a history of nail infections, don't get gel manicures. The probability of trapping an infectious agent between the polish and your nail for 2-3 weeks at a time is, quite frankly, not worth it. On the other hand, if you are healthy, there are three guidelines to follow. First, avoid polishes with methacrylate, which has been associated with a higher risk of contact dermatitis, a rash-like infection on the skin. OPI and my favorite, Sephora Gel Shine, do not contain methacrylate. Second, make sure you take off your nail polish before you see your physician, whether you are wearing traditional or gel nail polish. Nails can be indicative of health problems like anemia, vitamin deficiency, iron deficiency, and poor circulation. It is especially important if you are in the weeks to months following a surgery or traumatic event. Third, limit time soaking nails in acetone. It is unclear at this time whether nail damage associated with gel manicures is due to the gel formulations OR the extra exposure to acetone. If you are the type of person who always wears nail polish (as I am), do your best to limit soak time as much as possible. If it is definitively proven that gel manicures are worse than traditional nail polish formulas, I'll tell you right away! :-) What are your thoughts on gel manicures? Let us know in comments!