Gel Nail Polish: Strong and Stunning, But At What Cost?

Anyone else amazed at how a little UV light and some gel leads to gorgeous nails for weeks? I'll be the first to raise my gel polished nails and say I love it. Not all good things are actually good for you though.

September 1, 2015
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Anyone else amazed at how a little UV light and some gel leads to gorgeous nails for weeks? I’ll be the first to raise my gel polished nails and say I love it. Not all good things are actually good for you though. Doctors are speaking up when it comes to gel nail polish. I see it as the same as junk food. It tastes great, but it’s not exactly something you should eat all the time. Gel polish works sort of the same way.

Don’t swear off the long lasting polish just yet. I have some good news to mix in with the bad.

How Gel Manicures Work

Most of us have probably dreamed of a manicure that lasts for two weeks or more. I thought I’d found a dream come true with my first gel manicure. For those who haven’t tried one yet, the polish portion of the manicure takes three steps. First, apply a special base coat that’s cured under a UV light. Next, two coats of gel polish are applied with each coat being cured under the UV light. Finally, a top coat is applied to protect the polish.

Notice anything different here? Most manicures don’t require a UV light. Here’s where part of the danger comes from and the one doctors are most concerned about.

Dangers of UV Light

I apply facial moisturizer with SPF on my face religiously every day. I don’t want to risk any skin problems from being exposed to the sun. If we protect our faces from harmful UV rays, why not our hands and nails?

The chemicals in gel polish require a curing process to harden and set on nails. Otherwise, it’d chip quickly and wear away just as quickly or faster as normal polish. You leave your hands under a UV light for at least five minutes or more with every gel manicure. It might not seem like much, but it doesn’t take that much UV radiation to damage the cells in your skin. In fact, the concentration of UV light used is up to five times more powerful than the average tanning bed. That bit of information alone has made me rethink my nails.

Doctors weigh in.

JAMA Dermatology, a journal of the American Medical Association, published a report concluding that ultraviolet light could be harmful to our health. The scariest part to me was the part saying damage could occur in just a few dozen manicures.

Many of us probably have that many or more per year. The study has only confirmed what many nail stylists already feared. Those gorgeous, long lasting manicures could boost our skin cancer risk.

The report has shed some light on the popular trend, but many doctors are saying to take the news with a grain of salt. They say more testing needs to be done to prove just how harmful these manicures really are. Some say there’s not enough UV light to warrant any worry at all.

Should you worry?

As with any potential health risk, it’s good to know about it upfront. I’m still on the fence myself. I have slacked off on how often I’ve gotten gel manicures though. I’ve even tried a few of those at home brands designed to work almost as well without a light. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with those polishes, but if they help reduce my risk of skin cancer, I don’t mind using them in between professional manicures.

Personally, I think if you’re worried about the risk, try to reduce your skin’s exposure during the curing process. Many women are already applying sunscreen to their hands before the manicure. Others place towels or gloves on their hands with just the tips of their fingers exposed. I’ve tried the sunscreen myself and it’s really easy to do. Texting gloves that leave all your fingertips exposed are great options too.

UV light isn’t the only concern.

I know I sound like a major party pooper here, but the UV light isn’t the only thing to worry about. I’ve had first-hand experience with the other issues that come with gel nail polish and those alone make me want to ease up on how often I get my nails done.

Leaving any nail polish on for more than a week could damage your nail. You’re basically cutting off all air to the nail itself.

With gel nail polish lasting two to three weeks, you’re leaving chemicals on your nails non-stop. These cause nasty yellowing along with weakening the nail itself. This is all just with the polish itself and doesn’t even begin to delve into how bad the removal process is.

Removal equals damage.

Acetone is a harsh solvent, but it does wonders at removing nail polish. It’s also the only type of nail polish remover strong enough to tackle a gel manicure. Unlike other polishes, you have to soak your nails in acetone to dissolve the polish. Some salons even sand away the layers. Do you really think your nails and fingers enjoy this process?

The removal process alone weakens the nails. Some women have even had damage to the skin around the nail. If we keep getting gel manicures back to back, the nails or the skin around your nails have no time to heal. I’m guilty of this myself. It took nearly a month for my nails to look and feel normal again.

Before Your Next Manicure

Remember I said I had good news too? Most doctors and nail stylists agree on one point. Gel manicures aren’t dangerous in moderation. Saving them for special occasions or during your busiest times might be best.

The salon you choose also makes a difference. The techniques some salons use are far less harmful. For instance, some salons now use gel brands that use an LED light versus UV. Other salons skip the acetone dip and opt for small acetone soaked pads just slightly larger than your nail. This means less acetone on your skin. I recommend asking a salon about their procedures before scheduling a manicure. If you know anyone who has used the salon, ask them about their experience. It’s okay to shop around for the safest salon.

Enjoy your gel nail polish, but wait two to three weeks after removing it before applying it again. Of course, you could always take my approach and use at home, no light brands. I know the next gel manicure I get, I’ll definitely try the new LED option if possible. Anything that makes me safer while helping me look better, I’m all for it.

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