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How Safe is Your Go-to Manicure?

Getting pampered at the nail salon is a fun pastime for many. But while getting your nails done seems like a fun and harmless pursuit, it turns out there are some chips in its shiny reputation.

The tools and practices used at a nail salon, unfortunately, may pose risks to not only your nail health, but your overall health. Thankfully, with a bit of knowledge, you can protect your nail health and still get that bright pedi to show off poolside. 


Nailing down the risks

Before we dive into the impacts of different nail procedures, let’s get into the physiology of your nails — and the general risks of getting them buffed and painted. 

While your nails are hard, they’re not impermeable. The nail plate is porous. In fact, it’s even more porous than your actual skin. Your nail health can also be a clue to larger health issues you may have going on, like skin cancer or other conditions. And nail infections, in turn, can spread to other parts of your body

While conventional nail products have improved in quality over the years, some still include some potentially harmful ingredients that your body can absorb. For instance, some nail polish includes formaldehyde, which has been recognized as a carcinogen and can cause allergic contact dermatitis. 

Salon woes

While the act of getting your nails done carries some risks, the environment in which you do it does as well. Dr. Shari Lipner, a dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, explains that when salons reuse files, clippers, or other tools and don’t sterilize them thoroughly, they put their clients at risk of developing infections like warts and nail fungus. “The baths used for pedicures can also harbor microorganisms,” she adds. 

Because of all the harsh nail products in use, nail salons are also full of toxic fumes and irritants, which can cause skin problems, respiratory issues and more. A 2015 New York Times exposé revealed the many health problems nail workers suffer due to exposure to these chemicals.

The mani wars

Manicures (and pedicures, for that matter) aren’t created equal. When choosing which type of nail treatment to get, take these considerations into account. 

Basic Manicure

“If you’re going to get a manicure or pedicure, traditional nail polish at home or in the salon is the safest,” says Lipner. Basic nail polish doesn’t last as long as some of the other options, but it can be quickly and easily removed with nail polish remover, rather than requiring a soak in acetone (more on that later). 

To lower your risks even further, seek out a non-toxic nail polish by looking for the term “three-free” on the labeling, which indicates that the nail polish is free of three harmful chemicals: formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate. You may also see “five-three,” “seven-free,” or even higher numbers, which means the nail polish is free of even more chemicals.

Gel Manicure 

The main appeal of gel manicures is that they last a long time. But in the longer long-term, they can be more harmful to your nails. Removing a gel polish from your nails typically requires soaking them for a long time in acetone, which can be harsh and drying. Lipner adds that UV light that’s used to set gel polish can cause sun spots on your skin and pose a moderate but notable skin cancer risk

Dip Powder Manicure

Another long-lasting nail treatment, a dip powder manicure, involves dipping your nails into colored powder then topping it off with a sealant (a specific type of clear nail polish meant to seal in the powder). 

While it’s similar to a gel manicure in some ways, it carries unique risks. At some salons, you might dip your fingers into a container of powder that other customers have used — which can increase your chances of contracting a fungal infection. The adhesives that hold the powder into place can also be irritating; experts recommend getting a test dip manicure to make sure you don’t have an allergic reaction to them. Plus, dip powder also requires an acetone soak to remove. 


Salon safety

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to mitigate any health risks at the nail salon without sacrificing any style.

  • Don’t get your cuticles cut. “The cuticle is meant to protect your nail from microorganisms,” says Lipner. Getting them cut or pushed back increases your risk of bacterial and fungal infection. 
  • Bring your own nail kit. Not only will this let you choose your own non-toxic products, it will also ensure that any tools that come in contact with your nails aren’t spreading infection. “I recommend bringing your own equipment to salons — file, clippers, buffer,” says Lipner. “All metal equipment can be boiled in water after each use.”
  • Apply SPF. If you’re getting a gel manicure, applying SPF to your hands can help protect your skin from the UV rays used to set the gel. 
  • Wear a mask. These days, wearing a mask is a smart move anyway to prevent the spread of Covid-19, but it does double duty in the nail salon. A mask can help filter out any toxic fumes you might otherwise be inhaling. 

Of course, no matter how many precautions you take, nail problems can still arise. If you have any issues with your nails, it’s important to get them checked out by a board-certified dermatologist who is trained in diagnosing and treating nail conditions. Depending on your particular issue, they’ll be able to advise a course of treatment to bring your nails back to health.


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The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.