From Ageing to Skin Cancer – Are Gel Manicures Safe?

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

So there you are. Sat in your local coffee house, when the love of your life walks past. He (or she) doesn’t know that he is the love of your life, but you do. You have dreamed about how you will eventually get together. About the day when he finally notices you. Because you know that one day he will. It will only ever be on a day when you look absolutely fabulous. Your glossy hair flowing in the breeze, a great new outfit hugging your curves, and fabulous looking nails wrapped around your elegant coffee cup. How could he resist? Then you realise that he could probably resist very easily if he sees your nails. Because instead of looking glossy and neatly shaped, they look awful. Bitten way too short, with half peeling nail polish, and several nails that are much longer than the rest. What a mess.

You squirm as you see his face fall when he notices your nails. How could you let this happen? You have dreamed of this moment for years. Practised what you would say to him. How you would smile and look at him sweetly. But you didn’t know then that he would see your scruffy nails, or that he would want to walk on by. You quickly put your hand under the table and smile awkwardly. But it seems too late. Your eyes watch him walk away into the distance. Getting lost in the crowd. Your one and only chance lost, seemingly forever. You know what you should have done. So why didn’t you?

Today it seems like more and more women are having their nails done. Looking after them regularly as part of their beauty routine. It is now so easy to get a manicure, and so quick. Salons and nail booths are popping up all over the place. In the local shopping centre or mall, inside hairdresser’s shops, and in pop up booths seemingly almost anywhere. Women are looking after themselves like never before. They want to look nice. Not only for their partners, but also for themselves. To take a real pride in their appearance, and to feel good because of it. In the USA $800 million is spent every year on nail polish. So nails are definitely priority for many of us.

In the UK the Daily Mail newspaper reported on a survey which was completed by Original Additions. They are renowned beauty experts. They surveyed 1,500 women who were all between the ages of 20 and 45 years. They also spoke to 2,000 salon owners to ask their opinions for their research.

The results were quite interesting. They found that:

  • British women spend approximately £450 / $545 a year on their nails
  • Most go to the salon at least twice a month
  • would not want to attend a job interview without first having a manicure    
  • Londoners seem to prefer red nails
  • Geordies (Those living in the North East of England), prefer pink
  • That British women are now spending more on their nails than their hair, and that now the trend for nail extensions is booming across the country
  • The popularity of fake nails in the UK means that more women now go out wearing false nails than their real ones
  • The more common use of tablets, texting and emails means a lot more wear and tear on the nails of those women
  • Celebrities influence the wearing of false nails    
  • 96% of the women said that they do feel better about themselves if they have their nails done   

Our nails are often one of the first things that are noticed by others. They give them a first impression. One that may or may not be correct. But they do make others think that they know more about us because of looking at them than they actually do. Impressions are made depending on what length, shape, colour, and design that we choose to have on our nails. If they are too loud and vibrant does that mean that we will be too? If our nails are just painted in a clear varnish does it mean that we don’t like to take risks? Or if they are bright red and look luxurious does it mean that we have a rich man at home who showers us with gifts and adores us?

Our hands are often our first or only touch with someone. We still shakes hands, wave, or give ‘high 5’s’. They are not only seen but felt by colleagues or family. We often speak with our hands. As though they can somehow tell a story or convey a message on their own. They are seen daily. Often by many. So it seems only right that we should look after them.

Our nails are an extension of our hands. We want them to look nice as we like to take a pride in our appearance. So when we visit the salon and have them painted a lovely colour, then reach into our purse to pay and they get ruined, we can get annoyed. It isn’t a surprise then that gel nails have become so popular. Gel nails give you another way of expressing yourself. They will give you a great all over colour which is smooth and professional looking. You can even wash the dishes without them getting ruined. The more that you can carry out everyday tasks without them getting ruined, the more you like them. Then when you see how many different colours and designs you can have these wonderful nails done in, and that they rarely chip, you love them even more. You also don’t have to spend time adding new polish, sometimes daily. Gel nails become you new best friend. Saving you time which you can use doing something else instead.


How do gel manicures work?

If you went to a salon to have your nails done the technician would normally paint your nails with 4 coats – a base coat, 2 of polish, and then finally a top coat. However even with all of these coats your nail polish could easily chip or become quite messy within a relatively short space of time. A lot of money is spent on a manicure which doesn’t usually stay beautifully in tact for very long. So it is easy to see why gel manicures are so popular now as every coat of gel is set. So much stronger and durable. If you choose a Shellac manicure there are sometimes up to 7 coating steps. As they are set under a lamp it is easy to see why they are more durable than nails painted with normal nail polish.


The difference between gel nails and acrylic ones – types of nails

Gel Overlays – Basically this is when nails aren’t extended. But the mixture which strengthens the nail is just applied onto the natural nail. It can help them to stop chipping or breaking.

Shellac – This is a blend of both nail polish and gel. It is basically like a polish in that it is used to paint your nails. But not to extend the nail. Using Shellac means that your nails will look lovely and the polish will stay on better. Your nails can be stronger because of it, and you should be able to do household tasks without worrying about it chipping or smudging. So good news for those of you who are always busy. In terms of damage – Shellac is less damaging for your nails than other types such as Acrylics or Gels.

Nail Extensions – These are made of a plate of lightweight plastic which is formed to follow the natural shape of your nail. Basically it is glued to the end of your natural nail to add length to it. On top of this is put a layer of either fibreglass, gel or acrylic, and then this is cured under a LED or UV lamp. So they become strong.

Acrylic Nails – These are usually clear or skin toned and are made from a powder which is dipped in solvent. These are usually used either to strengthen the natural nail, or to lengthen it.

So you can see that there are a variety to choose from.


Do gel nails weaken your nail bed?

Do gel nails weaken your nail bed

You could be wrong in thinking that a manicure is actually good for your nails as it seems that this is not always correct. The problem is that the processes used in manicures can lead to your nail plate / bed becoming weaker because they can become dehydrated. They are then more likely to split or peel. The problem is also that a lot of us have manicures back to back. So we never really get to look at our nails properly without nail polish one them. So we could be missing vital signs of infection. If we had something like a tumour growing in the area we might also miss the first signs of that, and it could be really bad news for us then. So having breathing space for your nails between manicures is really quite important.

The removal process for gel nails is sometimes quite harsh, and it is this which seems to do the damage. There seems to be some debate as to whether it is safer to get your gel nails removed at a salon or not. By their very nature gel nails do not want to come off without a fight. So they need to be removed slowly and carefully so as not to damage the nails as much. Every inch of care must be taken at this stage as removal can be very damaging to your nails if not done properly.

The nails are often soaked in Acetone, then wrapped in foil for approximately 15 to 20 minutes to help to remove them, and this is the harmful part of the process. The problem with Acetone is that it can get into your bloodstream. It can also give off toxic vapours or fumes. Although Acetone is in everyday products some furniture polishes it is not as strong as when it is used to remove the nails. It is then, especially with prolonged use, and in extreme cases , that Acetone poisoning can occur. Acetone poisoning has effects such as dizziness and headache. But it can even cause the sufferer to go into a coma. So can be very dangerous. It therefore needs to be taken seriously. Is having gel nail manicures worth the risk? To some yes. But to others definitely not. In the USA the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) does an important job by regulating products which are used in manicures.

Another way that your nails can be harmed in the soaking off process is that when the foil is taken off some nail technicians will then scrape the nail bed to help force the gel off. This can be really bad news for your nail bed as it can flake off in layers and sometimes never quite be the same again. Each time this is done your nails can become weaker and weaker. Damage to the nail bed can also be achieved by peeling the gel off of your nails too. Nails can become generally weaker and far more likely to split or break. So we need to be careful.


How do I protect myself?

Firstly don’t panic. There are things which you can do at home to help protect yourself. You can remove your gel nails at home and so eliminate the need for them to be removed at the salon. The beauty of doing this is that you are likely to be able to take much more time doing it and so hopefully cause less damage to your nails.

If you don’t want to buy pure Acetone to use then you can easily buy remover which is often more gentle on both your nails and skin. This may be more expensive but is a good investment as it is safer and less harsh than Acetone so causes less damage to your nails and skin.

You would need to soak a cotton wool ball in the remover and then put in on top of your nail. Wrap it in foil and try to keep your hands as warm as possible. It is best to leave your nails like this until the gel comes off easily with no need to scrape it off as this is when a lot of the damage is done. This process will usually take longer than at the salon as they will usually scrape the gel off which harms your nails. At home you can use a rubber ended cuticle pusher which is much more kind to your nails. You can usually buy these very easily either online or your local chemist. It is also then a good time to use oil or hand cream on your nails to help them to keep hydrated, and so less likely to split. Remember that patience is the key when you are soaking gel nails off at home. Plus nails need a rest from polish and gels just like your skin needs a rest from make-up sometimes. Natural can really be the way to go sometimes. If you want to know more about nail safety you can read more about it as there are a lot of sites talking about this.

We have to remember to question the manicurist or nail technician if we are either unsure about a product or service. It is important that we know about what is either happening, or being used on our nails. Also ask to see their qualifications, and if necessary check that they are both competent and registered with the governing body for each service that they provide. It is really your responsibility to keep yourself safe as much as it is theirs.

You should also ask them what type of lamp they use and make yourself aware of the polishes or gels as they are designed to work with different types of lights, in slightly differing timescales. So good to do your research about these too. You should ask them if they use an LED or UV light?

If you choose to do your manicure at home the lights you by normally wouldn’t be as strong as the ones used in a salon. This may mean that you need to keep your nails under them for longer which can add to the dehydration. So always moisturize them when possible and remember that you can also wear sunscreen on your hands to protect them during the process too.


Can UV lights be dangerous for your health

Can UV lights be dangerous for your health

We probably all know that UV lights can be bad for you. It has been long talked about that they may cause cancer. In the USA skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. In 2009 JAMA Dermatology produced a report.

This report concluded that:

‘It appears that exposure to UV nail lights is a risk factor for the development of skin cancer; however, this observation warrants further investigation. In addition, awareness of this possible association may help physicians identify more skin cancers and better educate their patients’

So there could possibly be a link with repeated use of these lamps and skin cancer. They could also cause your skin to age more prematurely according to researchers from L’Oreal Research and Innovation Centre cited in an article by the Daily Mail newspaper.

Premature ageing is something which is not very inviting. Apart from the health risks nobody would really want their skin to look like a dried up old prune. So we need to take care.


Any other risks?

You probably automatically look at your nails when they are being done and so without really realising it look at the UV light too. It stand to reason that if it can be damaging to your skin it could be damaging for your eyes also. So probably best to get them check regularly by your optometrist.

If you are ever in doubt about safety regarding your nail care or any other health issues please do always visit your doctor, optometrist, or physician.

There is also a risk of infections when bacteria can get in under the nail, especially if they start to lift.

Another possible side effect are dark spots on your skin. Again if you are in any doubt about the health of your skin then please do go to your doctor, dermatologist, or physician.

AAD (American Academy of Dermatology) advice

The AAD say that a gel manicure needs to be performed properly, and that you need to protect your hands from the UV curing light. You can look at more advice from other professionals too

Positives of gel manicures

Despite the risks which seem associated with gel manicures they are still very popular. Many celebrities have them and because of this they seem to have risen in popularity.

Gel manicures also don’t need to be completed as often as a manicure with traditional polish as it won’t chip as easily. Plus the colours stay vibrant.

So whether you like them or not, and despite their possible link to premature ageing and cancer, gel nails seem to be here to stay.



(1) Occurrence of nonmelanoma skin cancers on the hands after UV nail light exposure.

MacFarlane DF1, Alonso CA.


(3) Curtis J, Tanner P, Judd C, Childs B, Hull C, Leachman S. Acrylic nail curing UV lamps: high-intensity exposure warrants further research of skin cancer risk. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2013 Dec;69(6):1069-70

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.