Are Gel Nail Polishes Really Safe?: 5 Concerns Debunked

Cosmetics, Skin Care

gel manicure

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:

1.) REAL CONCERN: Gel polishes expose you to UV light from curing lamps. So use sunscreen or gloves without fingertips!

manicure_glovesAfter 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.

Sally_Hansen_Pro_GelTwo 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!

2.) REAL CONCERN: Some gel polishes contain methylacrylate.

Sephora_Gel_ShineDespite 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.

3.) MAY BE A CONCERN: The gel polish application and removal process causes nail damage. But is it the gel itself, or the extra exposure to acetone?

Is it the gel that causes more brittle nails, or the exposure to nail polish remover?

“The procedure can leave the nails thinner, causing brittleness, peeling, and cracking,” according to Dr. Chris Adigun, assistant professor of dermatology at The Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU School of Medicine in a press release from the American Academy of Dermatology.

Dr. Adigun cites a research study in which five women who had reported nail weakness, brittleness, and thinning from gel manicures were examined by dermatologists, who attributed these symptoms to the gel manicures. In addition, one woman underwent ultrasound and reflectance confocal microscopy (RCM) measurements of the nail plate before and after one gel manicure, which showed thinning of the nail plate (Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 2012). According to Dr. Anne Chapas, M.D., gel manicures may reduce nail strength by up to 50% (Dr. Anne Chapas, M.D.)

Yet it is unclear whether or not the gel polish itself is causing nail damage, or if the lengthened removal process (involving acetone) is responsible. If it could be definitively proved that the gel itself is causing the damage, then these formulas need to be avoided at all costs.

Yet, if it is the acetone, then it’s the opposite story.  You could actually be exposed to more acetone if you are using traditional nail polishes and changing them over time.  Think about it this way: If it takes 15 minutes to remove the new gel polishes every three weeks, that’s 5 minutes/week.  Yet, if you apply traditional polish and remove once/week, that’s probably 5-10 minutes/week – meaning you could be exposed to more acetone with the old-school polishes!

Until we know for sure, avoid overuse of gel polishes, and limit time soaking in acetone with either traditional or gel polish.

4.) MAY BE A CONCERN [VS. TRADITIONAL POLISH]: Gel polishes disguise the nail bed underneath, hiding potential problems for weeks at a time.

clean nails
Going to the doctor? Make sure your nails are clean and unpolished.

Abnormal nails can be diagnostic. In simple cases, patients will have visible fungal or bacterial infections. In other cases, patients may have blue fingernails (indicative of poor blood circulation), longitudinal ridges (characteristic of brittle nails), or horizontal ridges (vitamin or iron deficiency).

Of course, traditional nail polish will also shield your eyes (and your physician’s) from your nails for days to weeks at a time too. So this point alone does not make gel polishes more harmful than traditional nail polish formulas.

A good rule of thumb: No matter what kind of polish you are wearing, make sure you remove it before you see your physician. True story: I personally had a surgery a few years ago, and the doctor had no idea I wasn’t recovering well until she noticed my fingernails were blue. So pay attention to your nail health, and make sure that your nails are bare when your doctor is there.

5.) MAY BE A CONCERN [VS. TRADITIONAL POLISH]: Increased nail scraping with gel polishes may lead to infection.

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.

Bottom Line

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! 

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  • Lorri Artivity

    I am using Gelmoment and have found it to be the absolute best polish and healthiest ever. My nails are so healthy and strong now, it’s fantastic.

  • Steph

    FYI the sephora by opi gelshine base coat contains Hydroxypropyl Methacrylate and Isobornyl Methacrylate.

  • I have been wanting to try the Sally Hansen Pro Gel Kit but was wondering about the ‘at home’ results. I think I will try it. I am a very busy mom and I really like my polish to last through dishes and diaper changes 🙂

  • @Kat – You’re very welcome!

  • Kat

    Excellent post Nick! Confirmed things about gel polish I’ve suspected for a while but not been sure about! Thanks 🙂

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