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The Risks of Manicures and Artificial Nails
You may love your artificial nails, but beware: Their application could lead to skin irritation and allergies. Learn which chemicals are used and what problems they could cause.
By Eleanor Roberts, PhD
Medically Reviewed by Christine Wilmsen Craig, MD
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A manicure may look beautiful, but some chemicals involved in the process of getting one, especially the application of artificial nails, can affect the health of your nails, the surrounding skin, and other parts of the body.
Manicures and Allergic Reactions
“The development of an allergy to chemicals in nail products is the same mechanism that occurs with skin allergy to an allergen like poison ivy,” says Phoebe Rich, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland.
These reactions may include:
These are symptoms of what’s called a contact allergy. Although they may be limited to the area around and underneath the nail, they can also occur around the face and neck. This type of reaction might be difficult to diagnose because you may not immediately connect a recent manicure with a reaction elsewhere on the body, and you may not think to mention it to your doctor when seeking treatment.
If you develop an allergic reaction, you need to avoid using that product again. “Once the allergy develops,” says Dr. Rich, “you will always be allergic to that substance and your skin will react with itching and burning when it is re-exposed.” And symptoms may occur with subsequent exposure to different chemicals; one chemical can make you allergic to others in a reaction called cross-reactivity.
What Can Cause an Allergic Reaction During a Manicure
Allergic reactions may occur with:
- Artificial nails
- Base coat
- Top coat
- Nail polish
These reactions could be harmful to the customer and the technician. Says Rich, “Solvents may cause asthma to flare, and it is not clear if there is an effect on the baby if a woman is pregnant.”
Manicure and Artificial Nail Allergen Alert
Ingredients in artificial nails to watch out for include:
- Ethyl methacrylate in sculptured nails
- Benzophenone in nail gels
- Ethyl cyanoacrylate and butylphenol formaldehyde in adhesive
- Tricresyl ethyl phthalate in plasticizer
Ingredients in base coats, top coats, hardeners, and nail polishes to watch out for include:
- Toluene sulfonamide formaldehyde resin (TSFR) in polish
- Nickel in mixing beads in polish
- Thermoplastic resin in polish
- Formaldehyde resin in hardeners
To avoid problems with allergies, ask your manicurist or dermatologist to do a patch test (normally on the underside of the forearm) or to attach just one artificial nail to see if you have a reaction.
Try using TSFR-free polishes, which are less allergenic. However, polishes without this ingredient don’t last as long and still contain chemicals such as methyl acrylate, which can cause irritation.
Manicure Chemicals That Can Irritate Your Skin
While some chemicals are notorious for causing contact allergies, other ingredients can simply irritate the nail, both around and underneath it, sometimes causing the nail to separate from the nail bed.
This may occur with:
- Methacrylic acid in primers
- Formaldehyde, toluene, xylene, butyl acetate, ethyl acetate, and isopropyl alcohol in nail hardeners
- Sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide in cuticle removal creams and liquids
- Acetone, alcohol, ethyl acetate, butyl acetate, and methyl ethyl acetone in nail polish remover
To avoid irritant issues, don’t use chemicals to remove cuticles. For best nail health, simply soak your nails in warm water, then gently push the cuticles back. Also, cut back on how often you remove and reapply nail polish.
Other Manicure Health Concerns
Some chemicals can dry out the nail and can cause brittle nails, or make existing problems worse, Rich says.
Also, if nail polish contains a yellow dye, as many reds and pinks do, it can stain the nail. This does not necessarily damage it, but if you try scraping off the stain, you will thin the nails and possibly split or break them.
And then there’s infection. Any damage to the skin around and under the nails can open up small wounds. Infection is a virtual given if tissue around the nail or cuticle is injured during the manicure, and could result in your losing the nail. “Be sure that implements are clean and that you are careful not to cut the cuticle when grooming nails,” advises Rich.
Manicure Safety Measures
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates only some chemicals used in cosmetic nail products. “They regulate the concentration of formaldehyde [up to 3 percent] allowed in nail cosmetics,” says Rich. Also, the FDA recommends that a formaldehyde-containing product not touch the skin “to minimize the problem with allergic sensitization on the skin,” adds Rich.
The use of one chemical in particular, methyl methacrylate (MMA), has been severely restricted in the United States since the 1970s as it can cause nail deformities and fungal infections, but some salons have been found using it. The American Academy of Dermatology says MMA can be recognized by an unfamiliar smell, and by artificial nails that are very hard, difficult to shape, and almost impossible to remove. Contact your state cosmetology board or the FDA if you suspect a salon is using this product.
When You Need to See a Doctor
If a product stings or itches, stop using it, Rich advises. If that doesn’t fix the problem, see your doctor. In mild cases, a hydrocortisone cream is usually recommended. With a severe case, oral prednisone or a cortisone shot may be prescribed.
If you develop an allergy, a visit to a dermatologist may be a good idea. A dermatologist can test you for your reactions to a variety of known allergens to see what specifically you are allergic to.
Video: Which is Worse: Gel or Acrylic Manicures?
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