is nail polish bad for your nails?

Maybe you love the look of sleek, polished nails, but sometimes you wonder: Are there harmful effects of nail polish? Are nails healthier without polish?

In general, the answer is yes — but that doesn’t mean you need to steer clear of nail polish forever. Here’s what you need to know about how nail polish can affect the health of your nails and skin.

Types of Nail Polish

There are several different kinds of nail polish. You can wear nail polish over natural or artificial nails. Here are the most popular types:

  • Traditional nail polish — Painted on in several coats and air-dried, you can quickly remove it with an acetone-based nail polish remover. This is the type of nail polish most people apply at home.
  • Gel polish — A salon technician paints gel polish on, then cures it under a lamp so it hardens almost instantly.
  • Powder dip polish — A technician applies a glue-like bonding polish and then dips the nail in acrylic powder. They apply a liquid last to make a hard shell.

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Is Nail Polish Bad for Your Nails?

Nail polish, in moderation, isn’t necessarily bad for your nails. Nails don’t need to “breathe,” per se, because they get their nutrients from your blood. But it’s still not great to wear nail polish all the time.

Here’s why:

  • Continual use of nail polish can discolor your nails.
  • The lamps used to cure gel nail polish emit ultraviolet (UV) rays. UV rays can increase your risk of skin cancer and premature aging. It is recommended to apply sunscreen to your hands and fingers before your gel manicure.
  • Removing nail polish with harsh chemicals can make your nails dry and brittle. If nails crack, they can allow bacteria to enter your body, possibly causing infection.
  • Chemicals from nail polish may eventually seep into your nails and get absorbed into the body. (It’s unclear whether it’s enough to affect your health.)

The bottom line is that — other than looking good — there are no great benefits of nail polish. It doesn’t make your nails stronger. In fact, nail treatments usually make them more brittle in the long run.

Can the Harmful Effects of Nail Polish Be Prevented?

Many people love the look and feel of manicured, painted nails. If you are one of them, here are some ways to ward off potential nail problems.

  • Don’t leave nail polish on too long. Two weeks is plenty.
  • Don’t pick at or remove gel or powder dip polish yourself. You could end up hurting your nails. Make an appointment to have a manicurist remove it.
  • Go to a salon that uses an LED curing light instead of UV lights. LED lights emit a lower level of UV radiation. LED lights also cure nails more quickly, so your hands are under the light for less time.
  • Save nail polish for special occasions.
  • Take breaks from nail polish. Your nails need time to repair themselves. Go “natural” for a couple of weeks in between nail polish treatments.
  • Try brands with fewer chemicals. Some nail polishes are free of formaldehyde and other harsh ingredients.
  • Wear sunscreen on your hands if you’re getting a gel polish treatment. Use a water-resistant sunscreen with a SPF of 30 or higher. It will help prevent skin cancer and premature skin aging.

Choosing a Nail Salon

It’s important to choose a reputable salon to have your nails done. Responsible operators will welcome questions about their business. Questions to ask:

  • Does the nail technician have a license? (Every state requires one.)
  • What are their practices for disinfecting and cleaning their tools and other equipment?
  • Do the technicians wash their hands between clients?
  • Are foot baths disinfected between uses? (They can be a breeding ground for fungus and bacteria.)

When you’re having your nails done:

  • Never let a technician cut your cuticles. They are there to protect your nails and surrounding skin from infection. (You can gently push cuticles back after a bath or shower when they are soft.)
  • Soak just your fingernails when removing the polish. Don’t put your whole fingers or hands into the acetone that removes the polish. (At home, you can use cotton balls to remove traditional nail polish.)
  • Shave your legs after — not before — a pedicure. Any small cuts in your skin can allow bacteria to enter your bloodstream during the pedicure. If you shave your legs before a pedicure, those nicks could put you at risk for an infection.
  • Use cream or petroleum jelly to moisturize your nails after polish removal. The chemicals can dry your nails and make them brittle.

Overall Tips for Healthy Nails

Your nails reflect your overall health. The best way to keep your nails healthy and strong is to eat a balanced diet and get enough sleep and exercise.

Poor nail care can result in bacterial infections. Here are some ways to take care of your nails, whether you use polish or not.

  • Keep fingernails and toenails clean and dry to prevent bacterial growth.
  • Cut your nails straight across with clippers or nail scissors. Then use an emery board to file down any sharp edges. Doing so will help prevent hangnails, which can lead to infection.
  • Don’t bite your fingernails, which can lead to open sores and infection.
  • Don’t use your nails to pry open metal objects, such as the top of a soda can. You can injure your nail or finger.
  • Wear something on your feet (like flip-flops or shower shoes) in any wet, public place. You’ll reduce the chance of getting athlete’s foot or a fungal nail infection.

When to See a Doctor for Nail Problems

Most problems with nails are minor, but there are times when you should see a doctor. Call a dermatologist (skin doctor) if:

  • The skin around your nails changes, swells, or causes pain, especially after a manicure. These symptoms could be signs of a more serious problem.
  • You have diabetes or poor circulation and develop nail problems.
  • You develop a rash around your nails. You may have an allergy to some of the products your manicurist used.

Note: Always remove your nail polish before seeing a dermatologist for nail problems.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

American Academy of Dermatology, Gel Manicures: Tips for Healthy Nails, Link

American Academy of Dermatology, Tips for Healthy Nails, Link

American Academy of Dermatology, Manicure and Pedicure Safety, Link

American Academy of Dermatology, Artificial Nails: Dermatologists' Tips for Reducing Nail Damage, Link

CDC, Nail Hygiene, Link

Harvard Health, A look at the effects of nail polish on nail health and safety, Link, Is skipping polish the answer to healthier nails? Here's what experts say, Link

National Institutes of Health, Funky Fingertips? What Nails Say About Your Health, Link

JAMA Dermatology, Natural Does Not Mean Safe — the Dirt on Clean Beauty Products, Link

About Dermatology

The UPMC Department of Dermatology diagnoses, treats, and manages numerous hair, skin, and nail conditions and diseases. We care for common and uncommon conditions, and our treatments include both surgical and nonsurgical options. We operate several specialty centers for various conditions. The UPMC Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center is a comprehensive dermatologic laser facility, offering a full range of cosmetic services and procedures. With UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, we offer a Skin Cancer Program that provides complete care from screenings, diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. Find a dermatology provider near you.