Love Gel Manicures? Your Natural Nails Don’t.

New research says they could lead to nail thinning and brittleness—and skin cancer risk.

By | Hub Health |

nails-UVHand in UV Dryer photo via Shutterstock

Last month we reported on the crazy amount of chemicals in the average bottle of nail polish, and unfortunately the bad news doesn’t stop there. Brace yourself, manicure lovers, because new research from the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says the trendy gel manicure could be hazardous to your health, too.

Gel manicures, beloved for their long-lasting, chip-free finish, are also linked to health conditions like nail brittleness and thinning, skin irritation, and even skin cancer, according to a new report by the AAD. The nail brittleness and thinning, the AAD explains, is likely a result of either the chemical-heavy gel formula, the 10- to 15-minute acetone soaks needed to remove the polish, or a combination of the two. Acetone soaks are also to blame for skin irritation, dried out nails, and possible allergic reactions.

If that’s not enough to make you cancel your nail salon appointment, how about this: Since UV lamps are used to set the gel polish, frequent exposure could mean an increased risk for skin cancer. Plus, the report notes that constantly having polish on nails could mask any tumors or infections that have already formed, making early intervention far more difficult.


PLUS: Read about the health risks of nail polish.


Also, let’s not forget, of course nail salons want you to get the gel or the Shellac polish because then you have to go back to soak it off. Unless you have a steady hand, the at-home products just aren’t the same.

Sensibly, the AAD recommends gel manicure moderation. Dr. Chris Adigun, an AAD dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine, says in the report to limit these manicures to an occasional indulgence. When you do get them, Adigun says to wear sunscreen on the hands, soak only the nails—not surrounding skin—in acetone during removal, rehydrate the nails using petroleum jelly or other moisturizers, and to ask your manicurist not to alter the cuticle in order to prevent inflammation and infection. The report quotes Adigun:

“In general, any manicure left in place for an extended period of time is not a good idea because you are not seeing what is going on underneath the nail polish,” said Dr. Adigun. “As is the case with most things, moderation is the key when it comes to gel manicures. If you get them regularly, you need to be aware of the possible consequences and see a board-certified dermatologist if a persistent nail problem develops.”

With the scary study results piling up, all we can say is letting nails go au naturel is getting more and more appealing each day. Well, at least for a few days, right? No-chip nails just aren’t worth skin cancer in our book.

  • Wet Paint Nail Spa

    Please don’t fall prey to sensationalism. Read the actual research
    and exercise common sense. Follow these links for the correct
    information about gels.
    http://www.schoonscientific.com/downloads/UV-Nail-Lamp-Facts.pdf and
    http://www.cnd.com/press-releases/uv-nail-lamp-safety-information

    The lamps used to cure gel polishes emit UVA which is not the cancer causing ray. It’s UVB that does that. The amount of UVA to which we’re exposed during a nail service is infinitesimal. All the same, any nail technician with a good education knows to use and recommend sunblock to her clients.

    As for prolonged polish wear, a gel manicure only lasts 10 to 14 days, and the polish is always removed before re-applying. That way, if there is any condition about which the client needs to be made aware, it will be seen by the technician. At that point she can assess whether her client is ready for another gel manicure.

    Proper application and removal of gel polishes does no harm to the nail or surrounding skin. Peeling the gel off, instead of removing it properly, will damage the nails because part of the nail plate will be peeled off too. By applying a cotton ball with some acetone directly to the nail, and wrapping it with foil, the acetone can penetrate all layers of gel, allowing it to be gently pushed off, leaving the nail plate intact. Following gel removal, your tech should be massaging moisturizing oils into the nail plate and surrounding skin. This will take care of any drying caused by excess acetone.

    Thank you.

    Michelle Phoenix, Owner
    Wet Paint Nail Spa

    • Jamie Ducharme

      Thanks for the information, Michelle! It’s great to have a nail professional’s take on this.

    • Melissa

      Hi Michelle,

      After reviewing the information you provided, the studies you sent were all conducted by people employed by OPI (nail polish), CND (leading manufacturer of Shellac) and McDonnell Labs (leading manufacturer of Gel Polish). Our studies were provided by the American Association of Dermatology, an organization that does not have a financial ties to the studies.

      Due to these facts, I am firmly sticking by our story. That said, I am a huge nail polish fan and love getting my nails done, and this information was disappointing to me personally.

      Thank you for your comment and Tweet. All comments and Tweets are taken seriously and that is why I reviewed the information you provided thoroughly. Feel free to call or email me personally.

      Melissa Malamut
      Hub Health Editor

      • http://www.facebook.com/michelle.phoenix Michelle Phoenix

        I’ve posted another comment w/ a study from a 3rd party. I didn’t realize I should have posted it as a reply to your reply. Sorry about the protocol snafu. No disrespect intended.

    • 7worldtraveler

      Don’t fall for this! UVA is NOT harmless; far from it! UVA AGES your skin! UVB burns. From the Skin Cancer Foundation:

      Studies over the past two decades, however, show that UVA damages skin cells called keratinocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis, where most skin cancers occur. (Basal and squamous cells are types of keratinocytes.) UVA contributes to and may even initiate the development of skin cancers.

      It is shocking to me that you are so mis-informed, Wet Paint Nail Spa!!!

      • http://www.facebook.com/michelle.phoenix Michelle Phoenix

        Please read my original post where I say the same thing and insist that we apply sunblock to all of our clients before gel services.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michelle.phoenix Michelle Phoenix

    “In the 2009 report linking two women’s skin cancers to nail lamps,
    researchers calculated that nail lamps expose people to as much
    radiation as tanning beds. But Markova says that study used the wrong
    method to calculate actual radiation exposure from the lamps.”
    Here is the link to a study done by Journal of Investigative Dermatology. As far as I can tell, they have no vested interest in the nail industry.
    http://www.webmd.com/cancer/news/20121205/uv-nail-lamps-safe

    Here is another study disputing the claims that UV nail services will cause cancer. The original study was calculated incorrectly, and while scientists in the industry have prepared studies to the contrary, that doesn’t automatically make them invalid.

    And again, I can not stress enough the importance of sunblock. We should all be wearing sunblock every day on exposed skin. A responsible nail tech should be applying it to your hands before every gel service.

  • 7worldtraveler

    I almost lost my nails due to this! I had an extreme reaction to the chemicals & needed treatment from my dermatologist to stop my nails from falling off. The needed treatment was very expensive & time consuming. As it stands, although my nails didn’t fall off, it damaged the matrix, which has left my nails with ridges. Be smart– keep your nails & cuticles neat but stay away from chemicals.

  • larabar

    This story is FAR too alarmist. For a more balanced take (in which a USC dermatologist references a 2012 study stating that UV nail lamps would be safe to use for tens of thousands of sessions), see http://www.hlntv.com/article/2013/03/08/gel-manicure-safety-nail-salon .

  • Beautiful Skin and Nails

    Wow! Do you do any news other than BAD, ALARMING and sensationalized false reporting? This isn’t even news. Thanks Wetpaint. You guys need to come up with something better. I have done thousands of Gel manicures and have never had any problems with my clients. Did you have a slow news day or do you have a vested interest? Get the truth – click on the links below under Wetpaint. beautifulskinandnails.com

  • bevy

    I got my first one and was told the polish is soaked off. They really sold it. I went back 2 weeks later and was told they don’t soak them because it would take too long they use the grinder. I told them no, I was told it is soaked off and they ignored me.

    I went back 5 more times for the gel polish, each time having the old sanded off. I realized my nails felt thin and tender, sore. I went to have the polish removed the next day insisting that it be soaked off. I think anyone selling this treatment has something to gain by promoting it.

    Please girls stay away from the gel polish. Take it from a girl who has been there and done that.