Gel and Acrylic Nails Are Beautiful, But Are They Safe?

It just seems that no matter what you do, your nails chip and tear. A regular manicure seems like a waste of money; after all, it’s not long before your nails are chipped and torn again. Everywhere you go, you see women with amazing nails, with intricate nail art and vibrant colors. You think to yourself: “Why not me?”

Acrylic and gel nails are attractive, but they might not be all they’re cracked up to be, says Kasia Masterpol, MD, a Lahey Health dermatologist, now practicing in Burlington and opening soon in Woburn. What are the risks of acrylic nails? What about the safety of gel nails? Masterpol shares her tips on how to wear these workhorses.

The Basics

Both gels and acrylics are made from plastic, but they have distinct differences.

Gels are made from premixed polymer and monomer gel. This gives them a glossy appearance, which tends to make them look more natural than acrylic nails. They’re applied right onto your nail bed or nail tip, and they’re more flexible than acrylics. They go on without the strong smell that accompanies acrylics, but they may not last as long as properly applied acrylic nails. They’re cured under a UV light or LED lamp, and they’re removed by soaking your fingers in acetone.

Acrylic nails are thicker than gel nails. An acrylic application involves mixing a liquid monomer with a powder polymer to apply directly on your nail. Your technician may first apply a lengthening tip at your request.

You’ll normally air dry these nails, although polish drying requires UV or LED lights, as with gel. These are also removed by soaking in acetone for about 30 minutes. Most technicians will use a nail drill with a carbide bit to file down both tip and acrylic coating, although a hand file can also be used.

Lastly, both gels and acrylics require a significant investment of time and money. Americans spent $8.53 billion on nail services in 2017. Gels and acrylics require regular maintenance; you’ll need to go back to the salon every two to three weeks to get a fill, where the technician will cover up gaps between your real and fake nails that occur from natural nail growth.

Safety Concerns With Gel and Acrylic Nails

Dr. Masterpol notes that people may look past potential health risks in the pursuit of beautiful nails, often unknowingly. For instance, the safety of gel nails and the potential risks of acrylic nails can have a lot to do with the practices of the salon you go to. Before you book an appointment, Dr. Masterpol recommends making sure that the salon and its technicians are currently licensed by the state. These documents should be posted around the salon. If you don’t see them, ask.

You could be allergic to the resin and formaldehyde in acrylic nails, and that could lead to a skin condition like contact dermatitis. Some famous guitarists rely on acrylic nails to play their instruments. But they, too, have been at risk for contact dermatitis. A report published in the journal Occupational Medicine shares the story of a flamenco guitarist who developed contact dermatitis. And a study published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology found that people who experienced contact dermatitis from acrylic nails saw it completely subside once the artificial nails were removed.

There’s also a chance you could develop an infection from the bacteria that grows between the natural nail plate and the artificial nail. Dr. Masterpol notes that this can happen when you’ve worn your artificial nails for too long, or when bubbles — any sort of gap, really — develops between the nail plate and false nail.

Traumatic onycholysis can occur when your nail plate separates from your nail bed. This could happen if your hand hits something very hard, especially if your acrylic nails are very long, or simply from the trauma of the treatments themselves.

If you’re sensitive to chemicals or smells, consider wearing a mask. There’s a reason why your technician wears one. This way you can enjoy your manicure without inhaling any nail dust or the chemical vapors.

Oh, and that idea that acrylic nails block oxygen transfer, causing damage or discoloring? That’s just a myth, the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology says.

The Choice Is Yours

If you opt for artificial nails, it may mean repeated exposure to UV lights. If you’re concerned about their effect on your health, ask if your salon uses LED lights, which take less time and also deliver less radiation. The risk of repeated UV exposure is minimal to hands, says the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology; if you want peace of mind, you could wear fingerless gloves or apply sunscreen.

“Wearing gel or acrylic nails, or not wearing any, is a very personal choice. People just need to know there may be long-term consequences. We often don’t know these until years after a trend has developed and after the damage has already been done. With nails, damage is often permanent, and people should be aware of that,” Dr. Masterpol said. “Hopefully, this information will help you make the decision that’s right for you.”

Here’s more helpful advice from Lahey Health on safely taking care of your children’s nails at home. And if you have more questions about your nail health, find a Lahey dermatologist near you.


*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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