Hands and Feet

Could Your Gel Manicure Leave You with Nerve Damage or Skin Cancer?

+ Pamela Friedman

I got a very disturbing comment from one of our CV Skinlabs readers a little bit ago. After reading it, I felt really angry that more isn’t done to ensure customer safety with beauty procedures.

This poor woman is an ovarian cancer survivor, and she said that she likes to get those new gel manicures. They’re all the rage right now. If you haven’t heard of them, I’ll tell you more below.

Suffice to say that since her last manicure, she is experiencing constant pain in her fingers and hands. Is it possible this could be because of the manicure?

Unfortunately, yes.

What is a Gel Manicure?

Like so many new beauty treatments, when gel manicures first showed up on the market, they were hailed as the latest. Nails shine brighter and last longer than with regular manicures. You can go for two to three weeks without a crack. For busy women who use their hands a lot, this sounded like a great deal. Not only would nails look better, longer, but women could potentially save money by not having to redo their manicures quite so often.

This sort of durability comes at a price, however. The process requires four or five coats of polish, with each layer followed by a finish under a UV light, similar to those lights used in tanning salons, but much weaker. (I posted about the potential danger with repeated exposure to UV lights in a former post.)

To give you a better idea, here’s the process:

  • Your nails are cleaned and trimmed like usual, then sometimes filed and prepped with a special adhesive.
  • The tech applies a base coat.
  • Between each layer you soak your hands in the ultraviolet light. Most salons give you mittens to keep the rays off your hands.
  • The tech applies the next coat, and the next. You go under the light after each one.
  • Finally, the topcoat is applied as usual.
  • Back in the UV-ray machine you go.

Why do they call these “gel manicures?” It has to do with the polish. Instead of a liquid, it’s actually of a gel consistency. That’s why it needs help to dry.

Granted, these manicures look great. I see all kinds of women raving about them. How they look, however, isn’t the concern here. It’s what they may be doing to your fingers and hands.

Reports of Nerve Damage

The CV Skinlabs reader who wrote in said that for her last gel manicure, she went to a new nail shop. She said she had gotten gel manicures many times before, but this time was “an extremely different experience because during my gel polish I was instructed to put my hands in and out of the UV gel machine for over 45 minutes because the gel polish would keep coming off and just did not look and feel the way a gel nail should.”

After that experience, she says her hands feel “very different” and she is in constant pain.

“Could this be a side effect of the long-time use of the UV gel machine?” she asked.

Other women have had similar experiences. In June 2010, ABC News reported on a woman like our reader who started experiencing hand pain after a gel manicure. “Anything that touched my thumb caused an electric shock,” she said, “whether it was air or water or just touching very gently.”

The woman visited several doctors before she finally went to see a neurologist. The doctor told her she suspected that during the manicure, the technician may have accidently filed some of her skin, breaking the skin barrier, which would then allow some of the dangerous chemicals from the manicure to seep into her body, causing nerve damage.

Nerve damage. From a manicure.

Dangers with Gel Manicures

Let’s look at some of the potential dangers associated with these manicures.

  • UV Light: A 2009 article in the Archives of Dermatology concluded that “further investigation” was needed to determine if UV nail lamps can cause cancer. A study conducted at Lighting Sciences, Inc., an independent lab in Arizona, found that getting a gel manicure every two weeks is equivalent to spending an extra two minutes in the sun every day. Remember that exposure is cumulative, and keeps building up to increase risk of skin cancer.
  • Risk of Infection: The surface of the nail is usually abraded or roughed with an emery board prior to polishing-this weakens the nail and leads to breakage and possible infection, as well as possible penetration of the chemicals into the body.
  • Risk of Chemical Damage: Some of the gel polishes contain “methyl acrylate,” which can cause allergic reactions and rashes, and may irritate the lungs if you inhale it, causing coughing or shortness of breath. Reactions or irritation can also develop in the eyes if you touch your eyes with your fingers.
  • Risk of Health Hazards: Some gel polishes contain butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) as a preservative and stabilizer, which is considered a possible human carcinogen.
  • Removal: To remove the gel polish, you have to soak or wrap your nails in acetone, which is very drying and can cause your nails to become brittle and peel with repeated use. It can also cause eye and lung irritation.

How to Increase Your Odds of Staying Safe

After researching all of this, my best advice would be to stay away from gel manicures, as there really is no way to avoid all the toxins involved.

If you’re just determined to get one, or want one for a special occasion, take these precautions to increase your safety:

  • Choose a reputable salon and make sure your technician has been trained specifically in gel manicures. “Nine times out of 10, it’s the unskilled, uneducated technician that’s causing the issue,” said Patricia Yankee, head of education at Dashing Diva Corp., which runs nail salons in New York, California, Japan, Kuwait, and other countries. She added that if the technician mixes glue and powder, that’s wrong, nor should they dip your fingers into anything.
  • Put sunscreen on your hands and nails before you go. Make sure it’s a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against all types of UV rays. Or, ask if an LED light is available, which emits less UV radiation than regular UV lights.
  • Ask your technician to be particularly careful, and not file your skin accidentally.
  • Do not get a manicure when your skin is cut, red, extra dry, or in less than optimal condition.
  • Use a protectant healing balm to help strengthen and and foster skin barrier repair.

The following are danger signs that you should find somewhere else for your manicure:

  • The salon uses unmarked bottles of products.
  • The products smell unusually strong or have a strange odor.
  • The nail tech doesn’t sterilize the tools.
  • The nail tech does not wash his/her hands.
  • The salon is not clean.
  • You can’t see the salon or technician licenses anywhere on the walls.
  • The gels do not soak off easily in solvents.

If you experience any of the following after your manicure, check with your dermatologist or neurologist right away:

  • Your skin or nails hurt.
  • You have swelling, redness, or other signs of an infection.
  • You have shooting pains in your hands or fingers.

Have you gotten a gel manicure? Did you have any problems with it? Please share your story.

Picture courtesy Körmönfont (Egerszegi Szilvia) via Flickr.com.


Elisabeth Leamy and Tracey Marx, “Woman Says Gel Manicure Done Wrong Caused Possible Nerve Damage,” ABC News, June 28, 2010, http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/ConsumerNews/gel-manicures-harm-nerves-properly/story?id=11029335#.UDwrU3bCMYY.

Elisabeth Leamy, “10 Tips to Keep Your Gel Manicure Safe,” ABC News, April 12, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/04/12/tips-to-keep-your-gel-manicure-safe/.

Dr. Susan Taylor, “The Skinny on Gel Nail Polish,” Huffington Post, March 12, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-susan-taylor/gel-nail-polish_b_1333236.html.

New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, “Methyl Acrylate,” Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet, http://nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/1219.pdf.