Until recently, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen my actual toenails. I guess I just wasn’t paying attention in the brief minutes between polish changes at the nail salon (too preoccupied with blurry photos of Penn Badgley in Us Weekly, probably). When I finally did take the time to notice (crouched over the closed toilet seat in my bathroom with a bottle of hastily purchased nail polish remover, desperate to wipe away the cracked remains of a month-old pedicure), I was horrified at what lay beneath. A rotating selection of polishes had handily obscured the true appearance of my toenails, which closely resembled the mottled dregs of a glass of gritty almond milk. I hightailed it to the nearest nail salon and selected a bottle of Essie to re-cover my yellowed claws.
This experience left me wondering about the damage that nonstop polish application might be inflicting. I could observe that my toenails didn’t look healthy, and it seemed like pedicures were to blame. But on the other hand, I reasoned, nails are like hair — they self-regenerate! I couldn’t be inflicting permanent damage, could I?
Like any good millennial journalist, I typed “do nails need to breathe” into Google and pressed my space bar. I clicked on an interview with dermatologist Dr. Debra Jaliman in Glamour about this very topic, and she confirmed my hunch about the similarities between hair and nail-care protocol: “Since nails are made of keratin (a protein, just like your hair!), they don’t require oxygen and do not need to ‘breathe’ the way your skin does.” Phew.
According to celebrity manicurist Jin Soon Choi, though, there’s another reason why my nails looked so gross sans-polish, despite their lack of lung capacity: “Nails can get a yellowish stain from the polish’s pigment, so it’s good to let the nails grow out to get their healthy natural color back…The longer you leave on your lacquer, the more chance you’ll see discoloration (aka those icky white spots) on your nails after you remove the polish.”
I was relieved to learn that my toenail blotchiness was merely a stain, and not a permanent fungal jungle or something dastardly like that. My nails just needed a polish vacation. However, I was still curious if there were any other negative side effects from frequent manicures or pedicures (beyond sanitation concerns, which have been covered at length). I reached out to dermatologist Dr. Melinda Longaker and asked about long- and short-term effects of polish addiction. Most of what she relayed didn’t come as a big surprise: “You can get bacterial, fungal and viral infections from shared equipment (like rotary callus removers), so make sure the salon has a liner for the foot bath and their instruments are autoclaved — or bring your own.”
I was surprised to learn about the potentially damaging impact of gel manicures. According to Dr. Longaker, “Gel manicures can cause skin cancer and aging of your hands down the road.” I had no idea! My interest (and horror) was piqued, so I looked for more information on the American Academy of Dermatology’s website. Apparently the lamps used during gel manicures emit UVA rays that penetrate the skin and cause damage to DNA and collagen, which is what leads to premature aging and an increased risk of skin cancer. Studies indicate that the UV rays emitted by gel manicure lamps are four times stronger than the sun’s UV rays, and repeated UV exposure may have a cumulative effect, especially in people who get regular gel manicures. “The UV dose that you receive during a gel manicure is brief, but it’s intense,” says dermatologist Chris Adigun. “Over time, this intense exposure can add up to cause skin damage.”
The news isn’t all bad, though. If you’re a gel devotee, there are precautions you can take to protect your skin from damage. Dr. Adigun recommends using, “fingerless gloves or a similar garment with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor of 50 and wear[ing] them for every gel manicure.” Maybe I’m just blissfully lacking in gel-manicure protocol because I’ve never gotten one myself, but I wasn’t aware fingerless gloves with ultraviolet protection even existed. Lo and behold, another quick Google search proved my ignorance. Here is a (fittingly) violet pair on Amazon for $12.95.
Five-free polishes are also worth putting on your savvy nail-care radar, if they aren’t already. “Five-free” designates a polish free of formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, toluene, formaldehyde resin and camphor, which can cause side effects like allergies and disruption of your endocrine system. If you’re an overachiever, check out “eight-free” formulas (no ethyl tosylamide, xylene or parabens) and even “10-free” (no tert-butyl hydroperoxide or animal-derived ingredients like fish scales or crushed beetles). Don’t waste too much time parsing out which ingredients cause the most damage, though. According to an interview with dermatologist Dr. Melanie Grossman in The Wall Street Journal, it’s almost impossible to assign blame with exactitude: “People who polish their nails [might] eventually color their hair,” she said. “They use a cellphone and eat food with dye in it. At what point are we assigning blame to nail polish versus anything else?”
Like most things in life, it seems the best protocol is to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible and proceed with a reasonable amount of caution. I’m personally one week into a pedicure vacation (a.k.a. bare toenails), and I have two takeaways to relay: 1. I really wish I’d taken this vacation in December and 2. This is the only vacation I’ve ever been on that’s actually saving me money.