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Gel Manicure Safety

Q: My nail salon offers “chip-free” gel manicures. Are they damaging to nails?

A: They may be. These trendy—and more costly—manicures might have other risks, too. Gel nail polishes, along with newer hybrid products such as “Shellac,” look like regular nail polish but are quick drying and last for weeks. To give you an idea of how durable they are, they contain a polymer similar to the material used in dental bonding. After a coat is applied, you place your hands under an ultraviolet (UV) lamp for a short time to “cure” (that is, harden) the polymer. The process is repeated several times.

Among the potential problems is the UV light itself, which can increase the risk of detachment of the nail from the nail bed in people taking oral photosensitizing medications such as tetracycline antibiotics (like doxycycline). Because the UV light can cause retinal damage, you should be careful not to look at it directly.

There is also some concern that the lamps may increase the risk of skin cancer. In a report in the Archives of Dermatology in 2009, UV nail lamps were considered a risk factor in two women who had skin cancer on the tops of their hands. But another study, reported in a letter to the editor in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology last year, calculated a very low theoretical skin cancer risk from three commonly used UV nail lamps. Still, it can’t hurt, as the American Academy of Dermatology recommends, to apply sunscreen to the top of your hands before the manicure to protect against the UV rays.

Though it’s claimed that the polishes strengthen nails, one small study found nail thinning after gel manicures. Some people may also show allergic skin reactions during application.

What’s more, removing gel polish can be rough on nails. Nails are typically soaked in acetone, which is very drying, and any remaining flakes may need to be scraped off, which can further damage nails. Shellac manicures should come off more easily but still require strong acetone. Acetone finger wraps that just cover the nails at least reduce the risk of damage to surrounding skin.

Gel manicures, from a reputable salon, are fine on occasion. But think twice about getting them repeatedly, especially if you notice your nails are thinning or beginning to show other signs of damage.