Right now, your nails are stun-ning. They have the perfect shape, the perfect color and are strong AF. You've got a fresh gel manicure.
Gel manis use gel-based polish that's set with a UV light to make nails hard, chip-free and long-lasting. You can typically get two weeks of wear out of 'em.
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They deliver on the eye-pleasing perks, but are gel nails bad for you? Can they ruin your nails in the long run, and is there a connection between gel manicures and cancer?
Here's what you should know.
The Risks of Gel Manicures
As the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) points out: Gel manicures can be tough on nails. Here's why:
1. Gel Manicures May Damage Nails
While they look good on the outside, your natural nails may tell a different story. "The most common negative effect of gel manicures is dry, brittle, damaged nails," Christina Chung, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Philadelphia, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
A gel manicure can thin the nail plate. (The nail plate is what we commonly refer to as the nail. It's made out of keratin and is about a half millimeter thick.) Thinner nails, Dr. Chung says, are more prone to injuries and abnormalities in the shape.
There's not a ton of research on how gel manicures affect your nails, but one tiny February 2012 study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology looked at five people who got gel polish. The participants said that after the polish was removed — with acetone and, ahem, peeling the polish off themselves — their nails were thinner. One person also experienced nail splitting.
2. Polish Chemicals May Harm Cuticles
Another issue to watch out for is irritation in cuticles and the skin surrounding the nail, Dr. Chung says. That can happen from chemicals in the polish that cause a reaction in the skin and can affect the eventual growth of nails.
"Your nail grows from under your cuticle, so anything that causes irritation or inflammation in this area is sure to have a negative effect [on your nails]," she says.
3. There’s Concern About UV Exposure From Nail Lamps
To harden the gel polish, your manicurist will have you place your hands under the UV lamp. Due to earlier case reports, there's been real concern that this UV exposure could increase the risk for skin cancer on hands and nails.
One review, published in The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology in 2020, found that there's been no nonmelanoma or melanoma skin or nail cancers diagnosed in people younger than 40 years old who regularly get gel manicures; additional data also found that general melanoma rates haven't increased in adults under age 65 either.
The authors concluded that there's little to no cancer risk from UV gel manicures, though there's limited data available and more research is needed.
Theoretically, repeated UV exposure could still be a risk, so covering hands with SPF in place of the normal cream at the nail spa is a simple way to protect yourself, the authors say.
4. Picking and Peeling Cause Problems
Gel manis don't last forever. Your nails will grow out and, yep, chips eventually happen. That's where the urge to pick comes in. Don't do it!
"The number one bad habit with gel manicures — and I'm totally guilty of this — is letting them go too long, letting them chip and then picking off the polish," Dr. Chung says. "There is probably nothing worse you can do." The habit leaves nails vulnerable to thinning and damage.
How to Protect Your Nails When You Get Gel Manicures
Gel manis are not off-limits. There are several ways you can keep them in your routine without ruining your nails. Follow these tips from Dr. Chung:
1. Don’t Pick—Get Them Removed
Part of committing to a gel manicure is committing to the time needed to get them properly taken off after about two weeks, Dr. Chung says. This is done by soaking your fingertips in acetone. During the time you have them on, resist peeling them.
2. Keep Nails Moisturized
Proper total-body hydration will help keep nails and cuticles hydrated, so sip water throughout the day.
In addition, Dr. Chung says, wear gloves when washing dishes, cleaning, gardening or doing other hard-on-nails activities with your hands.
Finally, wash hands with a hydrating bar soap and apply a nice layer of cream or ointment after showering, Dr. Chung advises.
3. Take Breaks
"Not letting nails rest, breathe and recuperate in their natural form is simply not doing good for their long-term health," Dr. Chung says.
She recommends taking a break from a gel manicure for a week or two: "We all want to look great, but I believe you have to embrace and nurture your natural beauty at times for the sake of future fabulousness."
So, How Bad Is It Really to Get Gel Manicures?
Gel manicures can thin the nail and lead to nail damage and irregularities. However, having them properly removed, avoiding picking and taking time off to allow nails space to breathe will help maintain the health of your nails.
- American Academy of Dermatology: "Gel Manicures: Tips for Healthy Nails"
- InformedHealth.org: "Structure of the nails"
- The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology: “Ultraviolet Light Gel Manicures: Is There a Risk of Skin Cancer on the Hands and Nails of Young Adults?”
- Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology: “Nail damage from gel polish manicure.”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.