Your nail art might have an unexpected side effect...and it's not so pretty.
Pollen. Peanuts. Pets. If you're lucky enough to deal with endless sneezes and watery eyes, these are few of the things you may expect to cause an allergic reaction. And while it's not easy to avoid them all the time, you probably know to pop a Claritin or say no to airplane peanuts and cute puppy cuddles in order to avoid an episode.
But let's say your usual allergy-fighting methods don't work, and you're battling a rash or swollen lips for more than just a few days. (More on what's really causing your itchy skin.) Check your fingernails—do you have a freshly polished mani? That pretty new shade of pink could be to blame. It sounds shocking, but it's totally possible to be allergic to polishes, gel manicures, artificial nails, and nail art just like you can be allergic to skin-care products, soaps, and fragrances.
Usually, the allergic reaction pops up after someone is exposed to small amounts of the allergen over and over again for months or years, says Dana Stern, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and nails specialist in the New York City area. That's why nail-related allergies are more common among nail technicians who handle these products every day, rather than affected customers like you who visit the salon a couple times a month, max.
You're not allergic to the manicure itself exactly, but the chemicals you come into contact with during the process. Uncured methacrylate, acrylate oligomers, and monomers found in gels, tosylamide/formaldehyde resins or toluene in some polishes and hardeners, and even dust or fumes floating through the air of the salon could lead to a negative reaction, says Stern.
Gel nails are particularly troublesome because improper curing (or hardening) increases the chances that you'll have a reaction. "It's during the pre-curing time that the chemicals can activate an allergic response," says Stern. There are many parts of the mani process that can go awry before the nails have cured completely. If your manicurist applies too thick a coat of polish or gel, for example, it won't dry as efficiently. He or she also might mix brands that are not compatible with one another or rush through the service, which means you might end up with more toxic ingredients on your skin. The manicure also may not cure as expected if the salon doesn't maintain its UV bulbs properly or uses a nail lamp at the wrong UV wavelength, which unfortunately is impossible for the average consumer to know, says Stern. (Hey, you could always opt for this low-maintenance mani trend that won't damage your nails.)
What you will know is if you've developed some telltale signs of contact dermatitis, such as redness, swelling, and blistering around the skin and the nail. Some gel manicure devotees have also noticed a psoriasis reaction in their nail bed, where the nails appear to develop dry, scaly patches right after being exposed to a gel manicure, Stern says.
But the reactions can sometimes pop up far away from the nail itself, which is why you may never think that your nail polish could be to blame. You could see a rash on your eyelids, lips, arms, chest, or neck, for instance. Or your lips and eyes may be incredibly itchy and swollen, says Stern.
It's tough to know for sure whether your reaction is the result of an allergy or if it's just a straightforward irritation. Irritant reactions are much more common and generally occur if too much of a certain chemical comes into contact with your skin. Usually, these reactions will appear within minutes or hours of your nail appointment and should go away after you soak off the gels or enhancements (though you may need to visit a dermatologist if your symptoms are severe).
There's one surefire way to figure out whether you're having irritation or an allergic reaction, though: Visit your dermatologist and ask for a patch test. He or she will apply a concentrated amount of the suspected chemical on your back and then check out how your body reacts a few days later. If it comes back positive, you'll want to avoid the problem ingredient. That's easier to do these days thanks to the rise of 5-free, 7-free, and 9-free polishes, which are made without a number of the most common (and most harmful) chemicals. You may have to say goodbye to your beloved gel manis, however, if you're allergic to an ingredient used in those formulas.