Health risks of Shellac nail polish and other gel manicures

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    Shellack nail polish might be dangerous for your health.

    Gel manicures and shellac nail polish are hardened with a UV light (Shutterstock)

    For many women, having their nails professionally done isn’t just about keeping their hands looking nice.

    A good number of women take time out of their week to treat themselves to some time away from the stress of family and work.

    While a visit to the nail parlor may seem like a safe way to unwind, experts caution of the potential dangers associated with Shellac nail polish.

    SEE ALSO: Would you put Miley Cyrus on your nails? 

    Promoted as a nail polish which last longer than other polishes and resists chipping, Shellac nail polish was registered by Creative Nail Design. While the polish itself is not the main cause for concern, the method by which the polish is dried could potentially cause skin cancer.

    Skin cancer risk?

    A study previously published in the JAMA Archives of Dermatology, examined the cases of two women who developed skin cancer on the back of their hands after exposure to UV-A nail curing lights.

    The conclusion of the researchers, Deborah F. MacFarlane, MD, MPH, and Carol A. Alonso, MD, stated, “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.”

    “The main concern is that the lights they’re using to cure the nails are UV-A lights,” dermatologist Dr. Julia Carroll told CBC’s Marivel Taruc earlier this year. “Exposing yourself to this light we know increases your risk of skin cancer. My concern is that people don’t know the lights are UV-A lights, and over time, these lights could increase your risk of skin cancer.”

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    Skin cancer from chronic exposure is not the only concern when it comes to Shellac nail polish, which is considered a hybrid form of a gel manicure.

    According to a report from, a gel manicure consists of hardening a gel on top of the nail using a UV-A light. The substance is then sculpted and shaved down until a smooth surface is obtained, and then polish is applied. In addition to using potentially harmful UV-A lights, gel manicures require fingers and nails to be soaked in strong acetone to remove the excess gel residue.

    In a Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology report, doctors at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, found “nail weakness, brittleness, and thinning in five subjects after the application of a new manicure system called gel polish and removal with acetone and manual peeling. All subjects complained that the polish was very difficult to remove and that their nails became much thinner after the procedure.”

    The University of Miami experts demonstrated the discovered nail plate thinning through the use of ultrasound.

    “Overall, we hope that this report raises the awareness of potential adverse effects of the gel polish system on nail health,” the research concluded.

    “A patient presenting for advice about various manicures may be advised that the gel polish may lead to thinner and more brittle nails, especially when the general public may have the misconception that the gel polish system can strengthen nails.”

    If soaking in acetone and exposing skin to UV-A lights were not enough to deter some women from visiting the salon, everyday risks associated with manicures are also possible with Shellac nail polish application or gel manicures.

    It’s not just about UV-A lights

    learning about health risks when it comes to your nails is important.

    Electric files and harsh chemicals are also a threat to your health (Shutterstock)

    Orly Avitzur, M.D., Consumer Reports medical adviser, wrote in a blog about her experience with a gel manicure and complications she had seen in one of her patients.

    The woman came to her after visiting a number of other physicians because of excruciating pain in her thumb which sometimes lanced up to her elbow.

    Upon examination, it was discovered the women had nerve damage from an injury sustained while receiving a gel manicure with an electric file the day before.

    “In the case of my patient,” explained Avitzur.

    “I suspect she absorbed one or more toxins into her abraded skin causing damage to a small branch of a sensory nerve in the hand. Even without chemical exposure, vibration alone has been implicated in nerve damage and may have accounted for her condition, as could infection or allergic reaction. Regardless of the cause, it’s a risk she’ll never take again and neither will I.”

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    Avitzur advises women to be wary of the following warning signs which may suggest inappropriate behavior or procedures at a salon:

    • Swelling, redness or signs of infection
    • Skin or nails hurt after a salon session
    • The gel being used does not come off easily in a solvent
    • Unsterilized instruments
    • Unclean facility
    • Unmarked bottles
    • Technicians cannot tell you what are in the bottles
    • Skin is abraded or cut during the session

    Health risks of Shellac nail polish, and any other manicure, are considered accumulative and increase with frequency, however, experts warn that depending on your existing risk factors, and your immune system, it might only take one or few times for you to experience associated health issues.

    Is there really cause for concern?

    Not all experts agree with the warnings linked to gel manicures and Shellac nail polish, however. According to research presented by researcher Alina Markova, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, the risk of skin cancer from nail lamps—even after being used weekly for a period of 250 years—is still considered low.

    “Nail lamps are safe for over 250 years of weekly manicures, and even then there would be a low risk of skin cancer,” Markova told WebMD. “Not ‘no risk,’ but ‘low risk.’”

    While there is supporting evidence on both sides of the argument, individuals looking to avoid potential dangers should opt for a natural look or try a natural, acetone-free, chemical-free nail polish while still being pampered at the salon.

    SEE ALSO: Get all mixed-up over geometric nail designs

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