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Love Your Gel Manicures? How to Minimize the Risks

Gosh, I love gel manicures.  No chips for weeks?! Fewer visits to the salon?! Super shiny nails?! Gel manis are a busy girl’s best friend.

But are they too good to be true?

Since making their entrance, gel manis have been under scrutiny. Some medical studies have shown that they may be bad for you health. The goods news is that the risks are small, and there are ways to minimize them further. Read on for the potential risks and my tips (get it?!) to making gel manicures a safer option for your health.

1. UV drying can damage skin and lead to skin cancer

When you dry your nails, you’re exposing your skin to UV rays, which can increase your risk of cancer. According to a 2014 study, the UV exposure from nail dryers is “small,” but dermatologists cannot definitively deem them as safe because they do emit UV rays, after all. Furthermore, nail lamps can cause DNA damage to skin that can lead to premature aging. In sum: taking steps to protect the skin on your hands is a good idea.

How to minimize the risks?

  1. Find a salon that uses LED lights instead of machines with UV lights. LED lights dry your nails much quicker (45 seconds vs. 3 minutes) and emit less radiation. Most newer salons use LED technology, but you should always ask first.
  2. Coat the top of your hands with sunscreen before drying.
  3. Wear photoprotective gloves with the tips cut off! (To be extra safe, you can wear the gloves after applying sunscreen.) You can buy sun-blocking gloves like these or use a cheap pair of regular gloves, which will still let some UV rays through, but less so than if you don’t have them on. Remember: put the gloves on BEFORE the technician polishes your nails, so you don’t smudge!
  4. Use an at-home kit. These kits usually don’t require a UV light (though your mani will probably not last as long as the salon version.) You can even use your favorite regular polish and seal with a Gel coat like this one or use a Gel polish kit, like Essie Gel Couture.

2. Gel nail polish contains harmful chemicals that are absorbed by your body

Many nail polishes contain cancer-causing and endocrine-disrupting chemicals like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), and formaldehyde. A Duke study found that such chemicals are absorbed into the body just hours after their application. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), some brands don’t list all the ingredients of their polishes on the bottle, so it’s hard to even know what you’re being exposed to.

How to minimize your risk?

While several nail polish  brands have removed some of the harmful chemicals from their products, I have not specifically seen this done for gel polishes. Which means that if you want to minimize your exposure to the toxins in gel polish, you’ll have to get fewer gel manicures. (Sorry ladies). Save the gel manis for special occasions; in between, opt for regular manicures using polishes that are made from safer ingredients from brands like Gabriel and butter London.

3. Soaking your nails in Acetone exposes you to a toxin

To remove gel polish at the salon, you have to soak your nails in an acetone-based polish remover for at about 15 minutes. Acetone is a known toxin. Though exposure via polish remover is low and unlikely to be dangerous, I still try to avoid soaking my nails in acetone, especially for the many minutes required to remove gel polish.

How to minimize your risk?

Remove gel polish with acetone-free remover. You can do this at home, or bring your acetone-free polish remove with you to the salon. I’ve successfully removed gel polish at home by soaking my nails in acetone-free polish, and it works great! How? I cover each finger nail with a piece of cotton soaked in the polish remover, and then I wrap each finger tip in foil (just like they do in the salon). Wait 15 minutes. Remove foil and the polish should be coming off. If not, soak for a few more minutes until it does.

4. Gel manicures can damage your nails

Leaving polish on for an extended period of time prevents oxygen transfer to the nail, and can result in discoloration, thinness, and brittle nails. Additionally, the scraping and peeling that often happens when you’re trying to remove the polish can damage the nail bed.

How to minimize your risk?

Moderation is key. Dermatologists recommend not leaving polish on for more than 3 consecutive months. Remember to give your tips a break every so often, and use protective ointments to sooth and hydrate your nails.