Fashionable Fingertips

Tips to Keep Your Manicures Pretty and Healthy

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on March 23, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

March 23, 2012 (San Diego) -- If you don’t feel ''put together'' unless you've got a fresh manicure, you're not alone.

And if you worry that frequent polishing and polish removal may be harming your nails, Wendy Roberts, MD, a Rancho Mirage, Calif., dermatologist, has some reassuring words.

Regular manicures can be a healthy and safe indulgence, she says. However, it's crucial to know a few dos and don'ts so you avoid the pitfalls -- such as brittle, dried-out nails and even a potential risk of skin cancer.

Roberts presented an update on nail cosmetics at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology. Here, the highlights of her talk and a few other topics of interest to nail-conscious women.

When Did Modern Nail Polishing Begin?

"In 1932, Charles Revson invented color polish to adorn the nail," Roberts says. "Revlon became the first nail cosmetic."

The options have expanded. These days, there is standard polish, known as nail lacquer. There are acrylic nails, also called artificial nails, applied over the natural nails.

Gel manicures, another option, are usually applied over the natural nail to build it up and are promoted as longer lasting than nail lacquers.

A newer process is a shellac-like manicure. "It's a hybrid between a lacquer and a gel," Roberts says. "It looks like nail lacquer but the colors are brighter. It gets photo cured."

Which Kind of Manicure Is Best?

Comparing manicures with gels and lacquers, Roberts says: ''Gels win on their color and speed of drying. It never chips and looks fresh and clean. It is quick and there is no smudging. But to accomplish all that, you have to put your hand in a little tanning bed, a little UV light box."

Some research suggests these UV light boxes may be linked with non-melanoma skin cancers of the hands, Roberts says. She cites a 2009 report in the Archives of Dermatology, in which doctors describe two case reports. Both women got skin cancers of the hand after using the UV lights with manicures. The researchers concluded that exposure to UV light boxes that are used in many nail salons may be a risk factor for skin cancer and needs more study.

"Lacquer is healthier, without a doubt," Roberts says. "There is no risk of skin cancer on the nail bed. The safest [way] is, take a little time, let the nails air dry.''

However, the nail industry disputes the UV light and skin cancer link. Three industry experts tested the leading UV nail lamps to determine their UV emissions and published their findings in Nails Magazine in 2010.

They found that the lamps emit relatively low UV light levels -- levels that they say are considered safe exposure levels. The comparison to UV tanning beds is not accurate, they say.

How to Pick a Color of Nail Lacquer?

"Nail lacquer consists of organic pigments in the solvent," Roberts says. The FDA maintains a list of color additives permitted for use in cosmetics. "Your color should be an FDA-approved one."

If the polish is sold by a reputable company, she says, chances are good it is on the FDA-approved list.

The colors on the list, she says, are less likely to cause a contact dermatitis. In contact dermatitis, the skin becomes red, sore, or inflamed after contact with a substance, such as nail polish.

To see if the color additive in your nail polish is on the list, first check the ingredients list (often easier to read if you check the nail polish product ingredient list online, rather than the tiny print on the label.)

Next, check the FDA list.

Is a Weekly Manicure Habit OK?

Yes, with caveats, Roberts says. There's no need for a nail ''holiday'' to let the nails breathe if you pay attention to your nail health.

''You want to be aware of over-drying the nail plate," she says. "When you remove the polish, the polish remover dries and thins the nail and can cause breaking and thinning, similar to over-processing the hair.''

Look for a manicurist who guards your nail health, she says. "If you are doing regular manicures, a good moisturizing oil or cream should be part of the manicure." It can be applied, then the residue wiped off before the polish is put on.

If you polish regularly, multiple vitamins are good [for nail health], including B vitamins, zinc, and Vitamin C for cartilage and healthy skin, Roberts says.

Show Sources


Wendy Roberts, MD, dermatologist, Rancho Mirage, Calif.

MacFarlane, D. Archives of Dermatology, April 2009.

Nails Magazine: "Do UV Nail Lamps Emit Unsafe Levels of Ultraviolet Light?" November 2010.

American Academy of Dermatology annual meeting, March 16-20, 2012, San Diego.

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