We Ask a Derm: Are Acrylic Nails Bad for You?

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Acrylic nails have been around for decades. Used to add length and thickness to your natural nails, they’re also super customizable in their shapes and colors. Though their popularity continues to rise, many people have begun to question whether they’re safe to wear. The short answer is…yes and no. Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City breaks down the pros and cons of wearing acrylic nails for us ahead. 

What are acrylic nails? 

Acrylic nails are a type of artificial extensions that are applied to your natural nails. Created using a combination of liquid monomers and powder polymers, the combined chemicals form a paste that hardens with air exposure. At this stage, the nail technician can begin to mold the paste in layers over your natural nails until they reach your desired length and shape (i.e. almond, coffin, etc.)

Are acrylic nails bad for you?

Yes…and no. See, there are a few factors at play here, which we’ll get more into below. 

What causes acrylic to damage your natural nails?

Despite their popularity and certain, undeniable pros (like the ability to customize them and their longevity), there’s no denying the cons of wearing acrylic nails either. Here are five ways acrylic nails can cause damage to your natural ones. 

  • The constant filing and buffering can leave your nails weak and brittle. “The surface of your natural nails must be filed to feel rough before artificial nails are applied. This step thins out your nails and makes them weaker over time,” explains Dr. King. 
  • The chemicals can be irritating to your skin. The main culprits are resin and formaldehyde, which are both found in the paste. As Dr. King points out, these chemicals can lead to contact dermatitis for some people. The National Cancer Institute also points out that there are past studies that suggest a possible link between formaldehyde and nasal and lung cancer (and even leukemia). 
  • UV light exposure can cause premature aging. According to the FDA, nail curing lamps are relatively low risk as they pertain to causing skin cancer, but there’s still a chance of causing wrinkles, age spots and damage on your hands over time.
  • The gaps in between your nails can become breeding grounds for bacteria. As your natural nail grows in, a gap begins to form between the acrylic extension and your actual nail. This exposed gap becomes a prime spot for bacterial and/or fungal growth, which can be contagious. (It’s a big reason why medical professionals are asked not to wear acrylic nails near high-risk patients.)
  • The removal process can be harsh. When you’re ready to remove your acrylic nails, it’s recommended that you soak them in acetone for up to 15 minutes. This process can leave your skin dry because it strips away your natural oils. The subsequent buffing to remove any residue can also thin out your nails as it starts wearing down your natural top layer.

Are there healthier alternatives to acrylic nails?

Yes, if you’re ready to say goodbye to acrylic nails, but still want to rock a long coffin style, there are gentler alternatives to try: 

  • Gel Nails: Another commonly requested style at the salon, gel nails are more flexible and use fewer chemicals than acrylic nails. However, your natural nails can still experience some wear and tear. “Gel nails can cause nail brittleness, peeling and cracking, but they are more flexible than acrylic nails, so they’re less likely to cause cracking of your natural nails,” says Dr. King. Plus, keep in mind that UV light is still used to cure them and acetone is also used in the removal process.
  • Press-On Nails: This is the most affordable option and it’s the easiest because you can apply these babies right at home. Press ons are also temporary and won’t leave lasting damage to your natural nails. Just pop them on for a special occasion like a wedding or a brunch and take them off the same day if you want. 

Shop Press-on Nails: Kiss ($9); Olive & June ($12); Glamnetic ($15); Chillhouse ($16); Static Nails ($18)

  • Healthy Nail Polishes: Of course, the healthiest option is to skip all the artificial options and just paint your nails with polish. Even better if you use non-toxic formulas that are gentler to your natural nails and less likely to cause irritation. 

Shop the Polishes: Olive & June ($9); Sally Hansen ($9); Dear Sundays ($18)

OK, but what if I still want to wear acrylic nails?

At the end of the day, they’re your nails, so if you’re set on rocking acrylics, consider these six tips for minimizing potential damage:

  • Limit how often you wear acrylic nails. Take long breaks between sets (ideally two to three months). Dr. King suggests wearing acrylics for special occasions, but returning to your natural nails after the festivities are over to give your natural nails time to recover.
  • Don’t skip out on touch-ups. It’s recommended that you get any gaps filled in every two to three weeks. You don’t want to exceed that time and cause bacterial growth and/or irritation. 
  • Don’t trim your cuticles. Your cuticles are there to protect your nails and prevent infection, so you’ll want to avoid trimming them or pushing them back too aggressively. Instead, give your cuticles some much-needed TLC.
  • Don’t remove acrylics by yourself. Never try to pull, rip or break your acrylics off yourself. If you’re unsure how to remove your acrylic nails, reach out to a manicurist to help you out. 
  • Use a LED curing light over a UV one. Both the American Academy of Dermatology Association and Dr. King agree that this switch can make a big difference to your nails and skin. “Choose a salon that uses an LED curing light rather than a UV curing light. LED lights still emit UV radiation but at lower levels than a UV light. They also cure nails faster, thereby decreasing UV exposure altogether,” says Dr. King. 
  • Take care of your natural nails. For strength and growth, consider taking supplements (like biotin and B-complex), using nail strengthening treatments and adding a hydrating hand cream and a cuticle oil to your daily routine.

Bottom line: Whether you decide to wear acrylics, rock press ons or go for a classic mani, don’t skip out on giving your tips the care they deserve. OK, now who’s ready to pick out some nail art?

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Associate Editor, Ultimate Fangirl, Aspiring Beauty Guru

Chelsea Candelario is an Associate Editor at PureWow. She has been covering beauty, culture, fashion and entertainment for over a decade. You'll find her searching the internet...