Last week, I posted a picture on Instagram of my regular gel manicure and received a slew of messages asking if, given recent news about serious allergic reactions from gel polish, I’d be quitting them for good.
Since long-lasting gels are now the default and traditional polish use is at an all-time low (“No one asks for it – we only ever use it when someone brings in their child,” one nail tech told me), it’s easy to see why the news has caused alarm. The answer is no – having used gel polish almost exclusively and without incident for eight years, I won’t go back. But I am glad the conversation is happening, and so are the nail technicians I know.
Proper nail preparation and gel application is pivotal in avoiding allergies, and this is something that wasn’t made sufficiently clear in the stampede for DIY at-home kits during lockdown. Nails should be pre-buffed only minimally, maintaining healthy thickness. Making a neat job of painting isn’t just aesthetically pleasing – it’s key to safety, in that gel polish chemicals are more likely to cause reactions when they touch and linger on skin (beware the manicurist who paints carelessly then “cleans up” afterwards with remover. Polish should be safely within nail borders from the get-go).
Another undesirable outcome of DIY gel manis is the proliferation of poor quality at-home UV lamps, often used with incompatible polishes. “Most gel polish brands make a lamp for their polish,” says my regular nail tech, Bethany Walker of BW.Collective. “Because many need different curing times. One brand might require 30, another 60, seconds under the lamp.” A professional will know the difference, she says, but when people are using generic lamps bought online, each with different auto shut-off times, it’s confusing. “The result is that gel polishes aren’t curing (drying and hardening) properly, making skin more vulnerable to allergies.”
If the convenience and the lower cost of at-home gels is too good to quit, it’s crucial, Walker says, to know exactly which wattage of lamp and curing time is required to minimise risk. There are also polish brands created with allergy-avoidance in mind. My favourite is Manicurist’s Green Flash (vegan, £85 for a pro kit), formulated without endocrine disruptors, hydroquinone, formaldehyde, toluene and other sensitising ingredients. Both the packaging and colours are delicious and it cures almost instantly under its own lamp.