How gel manicures lost their shine

17 JULY 2023 | by Alison Izzo

Looking down at my hands, I feel sad. From where I would once admire a set of perfectly uniform, shiny nails, 10 discoloured and corrugated nail beds now stare back at me. I consider popping into my local salon to remedy the situation with a few coats of my once-loved Shellac. But I resist the urge, and it seems I’m not the only one.

The tide is turning on what was once a non-negotiable beauty appointment for many Australians. The reasons – according to those in the industry – are varied, from the cost of living crisis (gel manicures cost upwards of $40) to the risk of allergic reactions. 

But are gel manicures really that harmful? And, if so, does a better alternative exist?

An unexpected allergy risk

In April, the UK’s Office for Product Safety and Standards launched an investigation into the polishes used in gel and acrylic manicures, due to a rise in “life-changing” allergies. Simultaneously, the British Association of Dermatologists published a warning that methacrylate chemicals (found in the polishes) can cause allergic reactions, including rashes, loosening nails and breathing difficulties.

Sydney-based dermatologist Dr Shreya Andric says she’s aware of allergic reactions to methacrylate, though she hasn’t personally seen any in her practice. She explains that the allergy usually “presents with eczema around the nail folds, but can also affect skin elsewhere” such as the eyelids and neck.

UV lamps light up fears

Another factor that weighs heavily on the minds of many is the potential risk of skin cancer as a result of UV lamps, which are used to set gel polish. 

Professor Anne Cust, cancer epidemiologist at the Melanoma Institute Australia, is keen to quell any hysteria, stating that there is currently limited evidence on the dangers of UV light lamps. “The risk is likely to be low,” says Cust. “However, as UV nail lamps emit UVA, any exposure can increase risk of skin cancers.”

However, Cust says you can mitigate your risk by applying a broad spectrum sunscreen 20 minutes before nail appointments. “If you notice any new spots, moles or marks on your skin or nails seek medical advice,” she says.

Damaged goods

Potential risks of skin cancer and allergic reactions aside, the drawbacks of gel manicures are cumulative. A one-off appointment will not ruin your nails, but if you adhere to back-to-back gels – as I once did – the removal process will inevitably diminish the health of your natural nails, even if done at a salon.

Sydney manicurist Jocelyn Petroni explains that when gel is removed, the process also lifts particles from the nail bed. “If gels are removed using a drill or buffer, this is dramatically increased,” says Petroni. “Unfortunately, most nail salons do not have the protocols in place to protect the natural nail when it comes to removal.” 

The result, Petroni says, are “nails that are thin and brittle, and will peel and chip easily”. Alarmingly, she adds that this nail damage can become permanent. “For many people, it becomes impossible to grow their nails, as the nail plate struggles to thicken back to its pre-existing state.”

The long road back to health

Given the growing list of risks and downsides, what’s a reformed gel-loving girl to do?

The first step, according to Petroni, is to rehab your natural nails, which means going cold turkey on your gel manicure habit. The second is to nurture your nails back to good health. Petroni prescribes a nightly nourishing nail oil but specifies by saying, “I recommend applying a keratin nail oil, which dramatically repairs nails if used daily for seven consecutive nights”. 

In her salon, Petroni has introduced a polish-free service called The Naked Manicure, which has gained something of a cult-status among Sydney’s fashion crowd, offering a chic road to nail recovery, no polish required.

However, many still prefer the look of a lacquered nail. A number of “healthier” gel alternatives have now launched into the market, catering to recovering Shellac addicts. If the glowing reviews on social media are anything to go by, we no longer have to choose between the health and aesthetics of our nails.

The ability to enjoy both is, in fact, at our fingertips.


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