Can acrylic nails make you allergic?

February 3, 2020 / Duncan Fisher

Yes. And here’s what you should know

What price, beauty?

If it’s pretty hands you want, beauty should be about the price of a manicure, correct?

Well … if you‘re spending your beauty money on fake nails, and you end up allergic to what’s in them, it won’t be money well spent.

You may not know it, but a lot of people – about 2.4% of European women who go for gel or acrylic nails – are either allergic to false nail ingredients, or develop allergies to them over time, sometimes pretty severe.

Yes, allergies are like that. By repeat exposure, you can develop allergies that you didn’t have before. And nailbed allergies are not very nice.

Fine for nails, not for skin.

If you’ve been in a salon, you’ll know the process. Gel nails go on over natural nails, and are cured under ultraviolet light. Acrylic paste nails are kind of like that, only they harden in the air. There are gel polish nails, too, sort of a hybrid of the two.

Nail technicians know not to let the goop from any these processes touch the skin around your nails. People who try it themselves often don’t know this rule, though. With the chemicals we’re talking about here – they’re called methacrylates – that’s a great way to develop an allergy, a ‘contact dermatitis’.

What does it look like?

Methacrylate allergy is typically a really red, really itchy rash. If it’s severe enough in the nailbed, the nails themselves can loosen. The rash can happen elsewhere on the body too, wherever there’s been contact.

In very rare situations, the allergy can be so bad that there’s difficulty breathing.

It’s not altogether clear how likely it is that you’ll develop one of these allergies. Dermatologists have not, until recently, tested routinely for this. Numerous studies are underway, though.

A recent one in Ireland and the UK suggested that about two-thirds of the people with the allergy developed it through exposure. They weren’t born with it, in other words. Of these people, only a third got it through occupational exposure. Two thirds of the people who developed the allergy, in other words, were not nail technicians, or the like, people who would come into frequent contact with the chemicals.

That means that just being a customer in your local salon is a risk factor. How much a risk factor? The British Association of Dermatologists has found that nearly 20% of their patients who come in with nailbed damage had recently had salon treatment. These people very often had allergic swelling in their hands, necks, and faces, not just their hands.

About half as many patients had the same trouble after putting on their acrylic nails at home. They typically said that they weren’t properly warned about allergy in any of the instructions.

It’s not just the nail material, by the way. What they stick it on with is just as bad. They use Super Glue. That’s cyanoacrylate. Look at that word closely.

What can you do about acrylic nail allergy?

First, be aware of it. A lot of people don’t realize there’s a connection between their developing rashes and their nail treatments.

Second, have a personal rule, never, ever to touch the goopy stuff directly.

If you’re in the nail business, develop no-touch techniques that assure this. GLOVES MAY NOT BE ENOUGH. Methacrylates can pass right through even surgical nitrile gloves.

If you’re hardening nails with UV light, make sure you’ve hardened them all the way. There are cases of contact dermatitis where the nails were applied safely, but not cured completely. Use the right lamp, too. UV lights are not all the same.

Finally, if you think you’ve developed a methacrylate allergy, stop with the nails, and schedule a visit with your dermatologist, who will be able to run a test, to see if that’s what you have.

By all means, be beautiful – but do also be careful.

Questions about your skin? Ask our dermatologists online for $35.