Is My Mani/Pedi Habit Hurting My Nails?
Photo by Ivan Dmitri/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

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.”

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.

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  • Adrianna

    Pedicures and manicures are just another way to judge women and uphold them to impossible standards. And exploit the women working in nail salons.

    • Adrienne

      If you would, could you explain what you mean when you say manicures and pedicures “exploit the people who work in nail salons”?

      • Adrianna

        I always suspected this before the article was published. I am an immigrant in USA, and therefore I think i am just more sensitive to immigrant exploitation. I think a lot of people falsely assume that any sort of employee is paid at least a minimum wage or the exact amount you paid for the service.

        • Adrienne

          I was afraid it was going to be something like that… There are so many things I could say about this; but I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It could never compare to the horrors, the tragedies and injustices, that the people in that article and so many others in every other city go through and are subjected to, but even I have begun to experience these things. White privilege does exist, so I will never have to endure these things to that extent, but even I am paying a school over $6,000 to work for them for only five months. It’s an exciting day when I receive a tip; especially when it’s over $3. The owners only allow the cheapest supplies to be purchased, even though they show off exclusively OPI products. We didn’t even receive our books until halfway through the only five week class; where every week you learn about 3 different topics. They kept a receptionist who was never told how long each service takes (let alone sanitation afterward), and would consistently book people through their lunches or other appointments with no reprimand. The daily hours required are 9-4 five days a week, but I cannot drive and come from out of town. My day starts at 5am and doesn’t end until 9pm. I can’t eat breakfast or lunch. I had to take a leave of absence because every two weeks I was going to commit suicide. I cannot fathom the strength and determination it would take to live through what people like those interviewed live through. Nor the pain and emotional suffering it would cause. I wouldn’t live through the first attempt on my life…

  • Andrea Raymer

    I have started to have a serious gel manicure habit and I am very worried about the potential for skin cancer. I’m considering taking a bottle of sunscreen with me to the salon to use on my hands before they go under the lamp. Ive managed to grow my nails pretty long with this habit but now I’m irrationally afraid of going even a day with bare nails lest they break and all my hard work goes away.

    • Willow

      I’m a nail tech, the buffing they do to your nails is like sanding down wood, jt thins the nail out. There are post acrylic/gel kits to help you strengthen your nails. Putting nail hardener will help as well. Bringing your own sunscreen is a brilliant idea, put some one before you get it done. As for Shellac manicures, I recommend the same.

  • Jen

    I would be more curious of the impact of all the buffing, pushing back of cuticles, and cuticle trimming.

    • Adrienne

      If it’s done correctly, no real damage occurs. Your nails may be a bit more flexible after removal, yes. But that’s easily prevented/helped by the client using a good, natural cuticle balm, cream, or oil at least once every day; before and after anything is removed!

      As for cuticles, they’re just dead skin. So as long as the nail tech is careful and knowledgeable, your cuticles should look even better after pushing back and cutting them!

  • Katrina Elizabeth

    In my experience, most non-chop-shop salons use LED curing lights for gel/shellac manicures. Much safer!

    • The light emitted by LED is also UVA and more intense than the UV nail lamps but exposure is shorter.

      • Katrina Elizabeth

        Well, damn.

  • ladle

    I have long nails, always have, and do home manicures so I avoid the sanitation concerns. Apparently I do something right, cause the amount of people who think I got a fancy ass manicure are astounding.
    What I think does more damage than a coat of nail polish on dead cells is all the buffing and scraping and pushing and cutting people do. I had a friend who routinely wore gel nails. As soon as I saw her nails were as thin as paper and her cuticles were cut so much her skin was basically screaming (one of her nails broke off and I had the pleasure of seeing her rip off the remains) I knew that, NOPE that was never going to happen. I don’t even push back my cuticles and as soon as I stopped doing that, they calmed down and actually became less noticeable. I associate painted nails with my mom so I don’t think I’ll stop painting them.

    • Adrienne

      I nearly screamed in horror reading that. I will tell you straight up if she’s Ripping Her Nails Off, then she’s the one ruining them!! The cuticles are the fault of the nail tech she sees, who could be doing a myriad of things wrong, and she should be worried about getting infections. I wouldn’t trust a nail tech to even clean their implements if they can’t cut cuticles properly.

      • ladle

        Yup, I cringed when she did it too, I expected her actual nail to come off with it too.
        And that is exactly why my controlling self does her nails at home. I know my tools are clean.

    • ApocalypsoFacto

      Same with me; this is a great point. I used to have “problem” cuticles and the nail salon would try to cut them. When I started doing my nails at home, I stopped doing anything to my cuticles other than gently pushing them back with a soft washcloth after soaking. I don’t have problems with them peeling or scaling any more. Less is better when it comes to messing with your nails, ladies!

  • I used to get gel manucures done. They’re perfect because they last for like 1 whole month without chipping. They even make your nails stronger… until you take the gel off.
    After two or three time of doing the gel manucures, I felt like my nails were “thinner”, and defiantly weaker. That’s when I switched back to normal, clear, fortifying nail polish.
    I had no idea about the long term UVA effect! I didn’t think it could cause that much damage, but I guess I know what to do now!
    Thanks for sharing!

    Meg @

  • I am a Ph.D chemist who invented the first UV curing top coat that dried manicures win 6 minutes using the UV lamp. However, after I read a statement from the FDA that UV-A is potentially more dangerous than UV-B, I worked on solving the problem of long dry times, premature chipping and nail damage by creating a non-UV nail care platform called Dazzle Dry. LED is also UV-A and LED lights emit stronger UV-A to expedite the reaction. Women do not have to compromise their health because there is a product (Dazzle Dry) that dries rock solid in 5 minutes without UV or LED light. When used properly the manicure will stay on natural nails with no chipping for at least 7 days. There are no reactive ingredients in the product (in contrast to gel polishes and hybrid polishes) and therefore the likelihood of developing contact allergic dermatitis is nil. With consistent use, nails grow stronger and healthier. For those who have experienced adverse effects to acetone, Dazzle Dry is also the product to use as it removes with non-acetone polish removers. It is free of all the other offensive substances (toluene, formaldehyde, DBP, TPHP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, MEK, xylene, etc.) It does not contain nitrocellulose and will therefore ot turn nails yellow.

  • Furthermore to those who are offended by the presence of animal derived ingredients in cosmetics, the Dazzle Dry line of Mani Pedi products are vegan and not tested on animals. They are made in the USA (Chandler, AZ) from scratch under an ISO 9001:2008 quality system.

  • Caralyn Peeps Brown

    Get in touch with Doug School please he will give you accurate info. Esp about the uv lights.

  • Adrienne

    Thank you so much for not making this a hit piece on products or salons! And for doing great research! I get so f***ing tired of people blindly accusing the product and/or the salon when it’s either the nail tech who did the nails, or the salon-goers poor maintenance of their nails afterward; more often than not it’s a combination of both. People need to get educated!!

  • aspiringsocialite

    I’ve never been a fan of the gel mani. I hate that you have to go back to get them off. But, I’m always down for a regular mani/pedi.


  • ApocalypsoFacto

    Learning how to do your nails yourself, at home (mani and pedi) is one of the greatest money-saving activities you could ever do for yourself. I do my nails every Sunday night while I’m watching TV. I never have to worry about getting an infection from unsanitized equipment. I can use whatever polish I want, including one that’s five-free. And I save $35-$50 a week. After you do your own nails a few times and get good at it, the results are as good or better than you get at the nail salon.

    Also: if you want strong nails, take a collagen supplement. I use Country Life Maxi-Skin tablets (I don’t work for them, I’m just a fan – I’ve used other supplements that worked also) and my nails never break.