Last year, nearly 40 million Americans say they had a manicure anywhere from two to four times within a six-month period.
That’s a lot of nail polish. And—as it turns out—a lot of chemicals.
“Your nails are really porous, about 1,000 times more permeable to water than neighboring skin,” said Dr. Loretta Davis, chair of dermatology at Augusta University Health. “So they are much more absorbent than we might think and much more likely to become dehydrated than we might think.”
So in our quest for beautiful nails, are we really taking care of our nails as we should?
As a dermatologist, Davis says those chemicals are one of the things she worries about. “If you think about it, you’re putting a chemical on your nail plate when you paint them, then you’re putting on a chemical to take the nail color off before doing it again,” she said.
Those chemicals can be very damaging to nails over time, leading to dry, brittle nails under that beautiful color. “These chemicals can eat away at the nail plate as well as irritate surrounding skin,” she said.
The main culprits are formaldehyde-based resins in nail polish, methacrylates in artificial nails, and acetates in nail polish remover.
Over time, some people can even develop an allergy to these ingredients, even if they’ve had manicures for years. Those allergies can mean the skin around your nails becomes itchy, red and swollen. “We even see eyelid dermatitis because someone rubbed their eyes before their polish dried,” said Davis, noting that the skin of the eye tends to be more sensitive.
Even natural polishes aren’t immune from allergy risk. “After all, poison ivy is natural,” she said.
The practice of dipping fingers into bowls of nail polish remover can also lead to irritation of the skin around the nails, dry skin or even infection. Davis has commonly seen both staph and yeast infections around the nails. So instead, she suggests using a q-tip or cotton ball dipped in remover to clean off old polish, and protecting the skin around the nails with a layer of petroleum jelly.
Regularly using moisturizers like petroleum jelly is a good idea if you have chronic dryness or skin irritation, but if you have a true allergy—determined through a five-day patch test—you have to avoid whatever it is you’re allergic to. “Your body doesn’t forget,” said Davis, “and if you continue to expose yourself, your skin could have increasingly severe reactions.”
Arguably, most women probably dislike the way their cuticles look. “That’s the main reason why we see many more nail issues in women than in men,” said Davis. “Men do not routinely fuss with their cuticles.”
Manicures often include pushing back the cuticles—and even sometimes trimming them. That, said Davis, disrupts an important skin barrier. “That skin at the base of the nail is there so that when you, for example, submerge your hand in soapy water, that soap doesn’t get underneath the skin and into where the nail is formed,” she said.
Pushing, clipping or tearing off the cuticles could lead to inflammation in that area—“and that’s when you start getting an abnormal-looking nail,” she said.
Ditto with chemicals used to dissolve the cuticles. “You’re dissolving skin,” said Davis. “And the longer you leave it on, the more irritation, the more cracks in the skin and the more risk for infection you may have.”
Why Protect Your Skin?
For Davis, beautiful hands and nails starts with moisture. As a doctor, she estimates there are days when she washes her hands almost 100 times. So she slathers on rich cream or ointment-based moisturizers every night to help her skin recover.
Protecting your skin isn’t just beautiful—it also keeps your skin from being painful and irritated, and reduces the risk of infections.
“If you think about it, no part of your body is more abused than your hands,” Davis said. “Women will always love having their nails done, but your nails may not love what you’ve done. You have to respect the fact that you can only get away with so much trauma to your nails.”