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Dr. Susan Taylor Headshot

The Skinny on Gel Nail Polish

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Unlike most women, I only get manicures three or four times a year. My decision is not based on the cost of a manicure, its not because I don't have a nail salon nearby or because I don't have an hour or so each week to sit down and get a manicure. The real reason that I don't get manicures is because I wash my hands about 100 times each day. No, I do not have obsessive-compulsive disorder. As a physician who sees many patients each day, I have been trained to wash my hands before and after seeing each person. As you can imagine, during an average workweek, a fresh manicure will last, on average, one day. If I'm very lucky, a manicure could last two days.

When several friends told me about gel nail polish and the amazing fact that a manicure with gel polish lasts two weeks or more, I was intrigued! Thinking that this would be the answer to my plain, unpolished nails, I decided to investigate gel polish. Surely it would be better than acrylic nails which often permanently damages nails. Although gel nail polish gave me a beautiful manicure that lasted almost three weeks, I did have 5 concerns.

  1. Some of the gel nail polishes contain a chemical called methyl acrylate which can cause an allergic skin reaction, called contact dermatitis. Wherever the chemical comes into contact with the skin, a rash may develop. Because we inadvertently touch our eyes throughout the day, the rash can also involve our eyelids. The rash from methyl acrylate is usually red, itchy, bumpy and uncomfortable. It may last a week or two. Removing the polish and treating the skin with a cortisone cream will clear the rash.
  2. The chemical, butylated hydroxyanisol (BHA), which is considered a cancer-causing agent, is found in some gel nail polishes. Although we do not know exactly how much exposure you would need for cancer to develop, it's important to be aware of this connection. Not all polishes contain this chemical, so check the ingredient list.
  3. Gel nail polish is set or cured with ultraviolet light. Think of the light as baking the polish into the nails. The problem is that ultraviolet light is essentially sunlight and sunlight causes skin cancer. If you are exposed to ultraviolet light for four to eight minutes every two weeks when you have a gel manicure, that can add up to significant exposure. To avoid potential skin cancers on your fingers or hands, I suggest that you apply an SPF 30 or higher sunscreen to directly your hands and fingers after you wash your hands midway through the manicure. Then wear tightly woven cotton gloves with the tips of the fingers cut off. Another alternative is to find a manicurist that uses LED (light emitting diode) light to set the gel polish. We don't think that this type of light will cause skin cancer.
  4. To remove gel polish, your nails are soaked in or wrapped in acetone. Acetone is a very drying chemical and will cause your nail to become brittle and peel after repeated use. Massaging a moisturizer into you nails several times each day will help to combat the dryness.
  5. As with acrylic nails, the surface of your nail is usually abraded or roughed with an emery board, before gel polish is applied. This will weaken your nail and lead to breakage and the possibility of infection.
To maintain healthy nails, my compromise is to get gel polish manicures at certain strategic times like before going on vacation, during the Christmas Holiday and on special occasions. I guess that means I'm back to getting manicures three or four times per year.