Can Gel Manicures Make You Sick?

Gel manicures have become all the rage in nail salons over the last decade—they last for weeks and look as shiny as the shellac on a brand-new car. But these glamorous results can come with potential health risks. “There are certain steps you should take to make sure they don’t harm you,” says Chris Adigun, MD, a dermatologist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology.

The main concern, says Dr. Adigun, is with the lamps used to harden the gel polish and bind it to the nail. “The lamps emit short bursts of high-intensity UVA light, which is about four times the amount of UVA you get from the sun in the same time,” she says. While gel manicures have not been around long enough to assess the long-term damage from such high concentrations of UVA light, we do know that UVA rays damage the skin and penetrate the DNA, raising an individual’s risk for skin cancer and causing cosmetic sun damage, such as wrinkling and dark spots. The damage is also cumulative, so the more frequently you get the manicures, the more harm they may do to your skin. Dr. Adigun points out that while many salons claim they use “safer” LED lamps, those lamps actually emit twice the amount of UVA as older fluorescent ones.

Once you’re done with your manicure, there’s another risk: To remove the gel, you need to soak your nails in an acetone bath for about 15 minutes. “Acetone is the most desiccating chemical you can expose your nails to, and it makes them very brittle,” Dr. Adigun explains. Plus, if your nails were under the UV lamp a little too long, your manicurist may have to scrape the gel off in addition to the acetone; if done too vigorously, this can damage the nail even more. Trying to pick the polish off yourself can also cause the same kind of trauma to the nail. To get the safest experience in a nail salon, Dr. Adigun recommends these precautions:

  • Shield your hands under the lamp: A cream or spray-on sunblock can interfere with the manicure and may not even protect against such strong rays, says Dr. Adigun. Instead, she recommends buying UVA-protectant fingerless gloves (available online) and wearing them during your gel manicures—or simply snip the fingers off a pair of dark, opaque gloves to block harmful rays.
  • Rehydrate after acetone: To keep nails from becoming brittle, coat them with an intense hydrating cream such as petroleum jelly immediately after the gel is removed.
  • Give your fingers a break. Let your nails go bare for a week or two in between gel manicures to let them recover and become less brittle. By stretching out time between gel manicures, you will also be lowering your cumulative amount of UV exposure.