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Gel Nail Allergy: Safety, Concerns, and Prevention Tips

Aug 05, 2023Aug 05, 2023

By Marisa Petrarca

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"Gel or regular polish?" This question sets the stage for every nail appointment — and gel often emerges as the favored contender. Despite its premium, the gel manicure maintains its appeal over the traditional alternative because of its quicker drying time, hard-to-beat durability, and minimal upkeep. Yet, safety concerns have recently emerged about them, fueled by growing discussions about gel nail allergies on social media platforms like TikTok.

For instance, content creator Dani Lutin took to the platform in July to warn others about her suspected allergy to Aprés Nail Gel-X tips, a leading brand of nail extensions made of soft gel. (Think of Gel-X as the “Kleenex” equivalent of gel extensions. Other brands of gel extensions include GelFx by Orly, Kiara Sky Gelly Tips, and Gelish Soft Gel.)

Lutin shared graphic photos and videos showcasing inflamed cuticles and blistered, peeling fingertips. Her video went viral, garnering millions of views And her experience appears to be anything but an anomaly. A TikTok search for "gel nail allergy" shows that people have been posting about similar concerns for years, and it’s even resulted in urgent care visits for some.

As awareness spreads, it’s sparked a broader discussion, investigating the origins of these allergies and, crucially, ways to prevent such reactions. It’s also illuminated an important distinction: Though Gel-X has colloquially become an umbrella term for gel nail extensions — and therefore many of these videos are said to show a “Gel-X allergy” the brand and its products aren’t the only cause of these types of reaction. Rather — as we’ll explore shortly — gel nail allergies develop in response to specific chemicals present in numerous nail products. And, for some, there will be ways to avoid ever having an allergic reaction in the first place.

To grasp the intricacies of gel nail allergies, we need to dive headfirst into some chemistry. (No need for panic; this won't resemble the mundane lectures from your high school or college days.) For expert insight, we spoke with three dermatologists, two cosmetic chemists, and a research manager in the nail industry.

The main difference between traditional gel polish and Gel-X (other than the fact that Gel-X is a brand name product, while gel polish is a general category of nail product) lies in their purpose and application. “A gel manicure uses gel polish, which is in its liquid form until it is cured (hardened) under UV/LED light,” explains Mazz Hanna, a nail artist and the CEO of Nailing Hollywood. Conversely, Gel-X and all other gel extensions are pre-hardened before application but require a second curing process to fuse them onto your nails.

As mentioned, Gel-X specifically refers to a nail extension system by Aprés Nail. It’s a newer alternative to acrylic extensions. Aprés Nail unveiled them in 2017 as a way to lengthen your nails while maintaining a flexible, more natural-feeling texture. They're durable, yet not as hard as acrylics, and they soak off with acetone just like a traditional soft-gel manicure.

"They look like clear press-on nails but are made out of gel polish that comes in various shapes and covers the entire nail bed providing a softer, more natural look," says Gloria Lin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC. After your nail tech cures the nails under a UV lamp, they are shaped and painted with your nail design of choice.

Another thing gel polish and gel nail extensions have in common? They can both cause allergic reactions, Dana Stern, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and founder of Dr. Dana nail products, confirms. Vivian Valenty, PhD, an organic chemist and inventor of the Dazzle Dry Nail System, explains that "gel products contain two reactive ingredients called monomers and photoinitiators," which "belong to the chemical families called acrylates and methacrylates.” These ingredients are known to be skin sensitizers, which means that if they're accidentally absorbed into the skin, it may cause an allergy.

Therefore, it's imperative that you — and your nail tech — avoid getting gel polish on your skin. Otherwise, you run the risk of a reaction.

According to Dr. Stern, you can experience immediate contact dermatitis or a delayed hypersensitivity reaction. Contact dermatitis occurs “immediately after the exposure — as seen on TikTok — and usually on the skin surrounding the nail or nail bed," says Dr. Stern. This is called an “irritant reaction,” as opposed to true allergies, and is due to “damage to skin cells caused by overexposure to a harsh chemical.”

Symptoms of contact dermatitis include “immediate burning or pain and subsequent inflammation, redness and even blistering and lifting of the nail off the nail bed (onycholysis),” the pro adds.

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A delayed hypersensitivity reaction is an immune response that "occurs in someone who has had repeated exposure to the chemical," says Dr. Stern. "Over time, the person's immune system learns to recognize and react to that chemical, so the littlest drop or exposure can trigger the reaction into a full inflammatory cascade." (This would explain why you might suddenly experience a reaction after multiple gel appointments that went off without a hitch.)

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A delayed hypersensitivity reaction can display symptoms like that of contact dermatitis (so, inflammation, burning, itching, and blistering) and certain people are more prone to them. For example, those with eczema tend to have a compromised skin barrier, so theoretically, would be more at risk for a potential allergic reaction to nail glue." She warns that nail techs also have a higher risk due to repetitive exposure to the chemical.

The most frustrating thing about this allergy is that it's not curable. It will not resolve, "even with taking a break," says Dr. Lin, and there's ultimately "no way to prevent the recurrence of the allergic response."

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The scientific literature backs up the experts' warnings. A 2021 study by Advances in Dermatology and Allergology deemed acrylates a "significant cause of allergic contact dermatitis" — and that's just one of many published works. Another report from 2017 highlighted a specific case of contact dermatitis caused by methacrylate contact dermatitis from shellac nail polish, owned and developed by the nail brand CND. (Shellac is gel polish mixed with regular polish.) You might not be able to cure yourself of a gel nail allergy, but there are ways to avoid having a reaction in the first place.

Remember: If you've already reacted, you are probably allergic to the product and need to stop using gel altogether. But if you're new to gel nails, there are two crucial measures you can take to heighten your chances of preventing an allergic reaction.

One of the most notable ways to prevent an allergic reaction at the nail salon is to ask questions. "We've noticed a rise in some salons promoting Gel-X, which is a trademarked name and service of the Aprés Nail product line, and then using a different brand of full coverage tips," says Park. This can cause an issue when "nail techs mix and match products and system components from several brands."

The danger of the latter is that mismatched components could lead to under-curing since the nail tech would likely not be following the exact manufacturer's instructions. If this happens, "uncured liquid monomers will be present in high concentration on the nails and transfer to the skin around the nails and unknowingly to other body parts even though the Gel-X nail appears solid," explains Valenty.

This is just another reason you should proceed with the utmost caution using at-home gel kits. This option has risen in popularity as a way to save money, yet it could be dangerous if you don't follow the manufacturer's instructions (which should be available online, in case you threw out the manual). Remember: "If there is uncured gel due to an excess amount being applied or lack of penetration from the LED light, then this can lead to an allergic reaction,” warns Dr. Lin.

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It’s important to note that a reaction "can appear elsewhere on the body like the eyelids and neck due to people touching them with their nails," warns Dr. Lin.

If you have a suspected reaction to your gel manicure, the first thing to do is remove the polish or extensions, as long as you’re not having a severe reaction, says Karan Lal, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and the director of cosmetic dermatology at Affiliated Dermatology in Scottsdale, Arizona. “If the skin around the nails is extremely painful, oozy, and cracked, do not do anything by yourself,” he adds. In this case, it’s imperative you see a physician first to prevent an infection.

If you’re having a mild reaction, Dr. Lin advises going to a trained professional for removal, if feasible, to avoid any residue contact with other body parts. Immediate removal is crucial because, per Dr. Lal, "the primary solution for any contact dermatitis is eliminating the irritant." Dr. Lin further stresses, "The longer the contact, the more severe the reaction can become."

Following removal, consulting a dermatologist is still essential, particularly if you intend to continue nail salon treatments and even if the situation improves. Dr. Lal recommends taking photos when the reaction is worst to show your dermatologist. That way, they can confirm or dismiss a gel nail allergy.

Gel nail allergy treatment may require topical steroids, says Dr. Lal. "Sometimes, if it's painful, inflamed and affecting the skin around the nails, then we can do steroid injections into those areas," he continues. And if it turns into a full-body reaction — which the expert deems a "much rarer" occurrence, FYI — you may require oral antihistamines and oral steroids.

If you have an allergic reaction to gel, you should not use polish formulas containing acrylates, which, unfortunately, is the majority on the market. "Once a person is sensitized to the allergen, they are often allergic for life," says Dr. Stern. One type of acrylate is hydroxyethyl methacrylate (HEMA), which a team of researchers called "the most commonly sensitizing methacrylate."

It's important you bring this up when you're asked about allergens in a medical setting because, per Dr. Lin, there can be cross-reactivity between different methacrylates," which are used in other types of medical procedures. "This can lead to issues with those used in bone cement for joint replacements and dental materials."

The good news is that there are a small-but-growing number of “HEMA-free” gel nail products that don't contain acrylate. Après Nail offers a HEMA-free formulation of its Gel-X polish, as does the Paris-based brand Manicurist and UK-based Glitterbels (though the latter is a professional brand and requires you to be a licensed nail technician).

Other than sticking to non-acrylate nail polish formulas for life, the easiest way to avoid an allergic reaction to gel nail polish is to avoid getting the product on your skin, ensure your nails are fully cured, and seek the expertise of a highly trained professional. If you react, consult a medical expert for the best course of treatment, and if you're a first-timer itching to try gel nail polish, just be sure to ask your nail tech to test a small part of your nail first — it's better safe than sorry.

gel nail allergiesMeet the experts:In this story:Gel vs. Gel-X: What’s the difference?What chemicals in gel nail products can cause allergic reactions?How to prevent an allergic reaction to gel nail polishMake sure your nail salon is using the product they claim to be using.For an at-home manicure, follow the manufacturer’s instructions diligently.How to treat an allergic reaction to gel nail polishIf you have a gel nail allergy, can you still get other nail enhancements?Gel Nail Allergies: The TL;DR