If you’ve gotten your nails done at a nail salon in the past year a technician has probably asked you if you want gel nails. During the process, a gel-like substance is brushed on your nails and then placed under an ultraviolet (UV) light for two minutes to harden. Approximately $30 later, you end up with chip-resistant nails that last for weeks. Sounds amazing, yet dermatologists are concerned the process causes nail problems, and can camouflage nail disease if done continuously.
Gel nail polish looks pretty, but it’s hard to remove. Nails must be soaked in acetone for at least 10-15 minutes to rid the nail of the polish. Resulting in thinner, brittle nails that may peel or break easier than usual.
“Over time, this can be very damaging to the nail beds,” said Dr. Howard Sobel, an physician in Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “Additionally, repeated use of acetone to remove the gel is very drying and can also irritate the skin surrounding the nails.”
Long- and Short-Term Effects
Occasional gel manicures do not pose a serious threat to nail health; however, short-term risks include damaged nails that due to the length of time the formula is kept on nails. While nails are encouraged to grow without the interference of everyday wear and tear, gel manicures weaken the nail bed, taking away any progress of growth while the gel formula was on the nail.
“Because gel manicures are a newer technology, there are no proven long-term effects,” said Dr. Sobel. “However repeated exposure to UV lights will always raise concerns when it comes to aging and skin cancer, even if these risks are small. Premature aging to the backs of hands can include wrinkles, dark spots, and light spots, also known as actinic keratosis.”
Moderation Is Key
“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 Chris Adigun, dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at The Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. “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.”
Playing It Safe
If you decide on gel manicures, apply broad-spectrum sunscreen on your hands to minimize skin damage as a result of the UV exposure.
Also, tell the manicurist your concern of UV exposure. Dr. Adigun suggests telling him or her not to push or manipulate the cuticle because that will increase the risks of inflammation and infection.
Additionally, to minimize irritation to the skin, only soak nails — not the whole hand or fingers — in acetone while nail polish is being removed.
“The goal is to minimize exposure as much as possible,” said Dr. Sobel. “If you do choose to continue getting gel manicures, try to space them out as much as possible and allow nails to breathe in between treatments.”