Gel Nail Polish: Short-Term Beauty Fix or Long-Term Health Risk?

What was once just a fancy-schmancy add-on at the nail salon has become a full-blown beauty addiction. Thanks to the rise of intricate nail art, gel nail polish has become yet another way to accessorize, express your style, and bump up those “likes” on Instagram. Nails look better, longer – but is it safe? Here are all the deets…

The Details: Created to be chip-free and to last for weeks on end, gel nail polish uses heavy duty chemical-engineering to ensure a long-lasting finish. To give you an idea of how powerful gel nail polish is, it’s made with an ingredient similar to that used in dental bonding. Once the polish is applied, the polish is hardened by ultraviolet (UV) light. It is the UV light that stimulates a chemical reaction that transforms the liquid polish into a hard layer of plastic within seconds.

The Concern: Among the potential problems of the chemicals found in gel nail polish is the UV light itself. UV light, just like the sun’s rays, increases the risk of skin cancer and sun damage. Although the exposure is short, dermatologists have expressed concern and warn against it. In addition, for those taking oral photosensitizing medications such as Elavil, birth control, and Benadryl, the UV light exposure can increase the risk of detachment of the nail from the nail bed.

What you should Avoid: To start, steer clear of the ingredient PEG- 12 Dimethicone. Due to the manufacturing processed used, PEG- 12 is most likely contaminated with Dioxane. Dioxine is a known carcinogen that is linked to tumors of the liver, gallbladder, nasal cavity, lung, skin, and breast. There are also two other ingredients to avoid, HEMA and Di-Hema Trimethylhexyl Dicarbamate, both nail strengthening agents. There are considered toxic allergens shown to cause skin or visceral tumors when in direct contact with skin. Beyond ingredients in the gel polish itself is the gel polish remover. They are made with acetone, a removal agent known to be human respiratory irritant toxicant, and may cause damage to the nerves. Acetone also strips the nails, which causes the nails to be up to fifty percent thinner, leading to irritation and potential infection. Removers also contain Octinoxate. Octinoxate can cause biochemical or cellular level changes in the body and disrupts normal hormone balance.

Avoid: PEG- 12 Dimethicone, Dioxine, HEMA, Di-Hema Trimethylhexyl Dicarbamate, Acetone, Octinoxate

Here’s what to do: Based on our findings, sticking with conventional, water-based nail polish is the healthiest choice. Fortunately there are many non-toxic brands that we adore, giving you that same flawless look without the potential negative effects on the body. But if you just can’t live without gel, there are a couple steps your can follow to lessen its impact. First off, to minimize your UV exposure, use a LED lamp and apply sunscreen to the backs of your hands prior to exposure. Next up, bring your own gel nail polish, one that is not made with the toxic ingredients listed above. And finally, save the gels for special occasions only.

TCM Top Picks: Acquarella, Priti Nail Polish and Remover, Sparitual, and the brands found here. 

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  1. Of course I read this just as I have been buying gel nail polish like crazy!!! I looked up the ingredients on Sally Hansen’s miracle gel. I love the stuff! I don’t see the ingredients you mentioned listed on their products. Do you have any thoughts about the product?

  2. There is also a powder based gel called Next Gen (I think?) It doesn’t require UV light to dry. There aren’t as many colors but it is still nice. However it does still require acetone to remove and does ruin your natural nails.

    Krissy | 03.31.2015 | Reply
  3. This article is terribly ill-informed and really shows the lack of research that went into this subject. I highly recommend this article be removed and re-done when the writer has researched their information correctly. Shame on you for spreading incorrect information.

    For example, the concern about the UV light.
    The sun produces mostly UVA rays which is what causes the damage to the skin, nail tech uv lamps produce mostly UVB rays (still damaging but not as quickly or scary as UVA) and in such small amounts, you would have to use the lamp EVERY DAY for 10 minutes to get the same amount of UV rays as what you would normally get walking ONCE to your car on a sunny winter day.
    Then to minimize the risk of UV you suggest to use an LED lamp instead?! LED is a type of light “bulb” and still produces UV rays just like the traditional uv lamps. To say one is safer than the other is ridiculous when they both emit the same thing.

    Another example, you suggest to avoid acetone. Did you know acetone is a chemical that is naturally produced by the body, you can’t avoid something that’s already in you. The only danger acetone can cause in the nail industry is drying out your skin a lot during removal of gel polish and acrylics, easily remedied by moisturising after wards.

    And yet another example, you suggest to avoid the ingredient Octinoxate which is a common SAFE ingredient used in sunscreen to block UVB rays.

    That’s just the major errors that jumped out straight away.

    Honestly do your research before writing such scare-mongering articles

    Kasha | 05.22.2015 | Reply
    • My thoughts exactly! Thanks for setting them straight Kasha!

      Karen | 05.25.2015 | Reply
    • Kasha, I know this was written several years ago but you have had plenty of time to correct your mistakes. You need to stay in your lane too!

      Renee Albera | 06.15.2018 | Reply
  4. I thought this was hilarious:
    “water-based nail polish”

    Hatty | 03.15.2017 | Reply
  5. There is a high level of ignorance in this article. I suspect that the author has obtained information from one of the extremist lobby groups who use fear based marketing to obtain subscriptions.

    PEG- 12 Dimethicone, HEMA, Di-Hema Trimethylhexyl Dicarbamate, Acetone are all chemicals approved for cosmetic used both by the FDA and the European Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety. Experts who review the toxicity of chemicals and decide if they are suitable for cosmetic use, in which application (different areas of the body) and in which amounts. Incidentally, the SCCS has banned more that 1000 chemicals than the FDA in this regard.

    Acetone is naturally produced in small quantities by the body. It cannot cause an allergy reaction and does not thin nails – no nail products damage nails, only poor workmanship and ignorance do that.

    Removers do not contain Octinoxate. They mostly consist of acetone or an acetone alternative.

    All chemicals can be toxic – it depends on the quantity. Fly spray kills flies not humans – it is amount amount of toxicity and body mass. Fruit contains carcinogens! People drown!

    Mathew | 02.10.2019 | Reply

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