Cute But Cancerous? Avoid Hazards at the Nail Salon

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
UV nail light

Going to the nail salon can be a treat-yourself moment, which means health hazards are likely the last thing on your mind. But UV lights, reused tools and aggressive cleaning can lead you down a path that’s more horror movie than Hollywood glam.

You don’t have to give up your mani-pedi to avoid serious nail damage. We’ve got tips on how to prevent health hazards at the nail salon — and what to do if you’ve picked up something funky from your recent appointment. 

The quick and avoiding-all-things-dirty rundown 

If you’re committed to going to the salon (or, say, reading this on your phone before your appointment), there’s a couple of key points that will keep you safe.  

  • Check to make sure the salon is licensed, which will mean the technicians are trained and follow safety protocols.   
  • Ask about cleaning and sanitation so that you know the nail equipment is sterilized between each use. (Bonus points if you bring your own tools.)  
  • Be sure your technicians toss single-use items, like gloves or hard-to-clean tools like pumice stones. 

“I absolutely recognize nail cosmetics, polish and ornamentation are very important in social signaling, pop culture, self-care and getting together with friends. The idea is not to never go to the salon but to focus on prevention and early recognition of possible problems and having those addressed before they become something significant,” says Dr. April Schachtel, a dermatologist at UW Medical Center – Roosevelt. 

So, what potential problems, signs and symptoms should you look out for? 

Skin and nail infections: red, swollen and warty  

There are three types of infections you can pick up at the salon: those from fungus, bacteria and viruses. The infections are spread when you touch instruments or surfaces in the salon that have germs on them (soaking basins and nail trimming tools can be a hotbed for germs if they aren’t properly cleaned and disinfected).  

A fungal infection might look like thickened nails, scaliness around and beneath your nails, pain, swelling and athlete’s foot, Schachtel says. A bacterial infection is similar in that it can cause pain around your nail, but its defining symptoms are abscesses (a bubble of skin filled with pus). Viral infections most often appear as plantar warts on your feet, which are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).  And in very, very unlikely cases, you can be exposed to viruses such as hepatitis B or HIV.  

Prevent or treat a nail infection 

The no. 1 prevention tool for infection is to bring your own tools. If that’s not your thing, ask about sanitation methods. It can also help to keep your nails trimmed short. 

“You never know 100% how a salon is cleaning their tools,” Schachtel says. “Bringing your own equipment feels a little extra but it really does pay off in keeping things safe.”  

If your skin gets irritated, take a break from getting your nails done. In many cases, your nails and skin will recover on their own if you give them the time to do so. (Spoiler alert: this is the top treatment tip for several of the other icky nasties below, too.) 

If the infection is extremely painful or doesn’t heal on its own, then it’s time to chat with your doctor or a dermatologist. They’ll be able to drain your abscess, deal with a wart or provide crucial next steps. 

UV light exposure: cell damage and wrinkles 

Fans of gel or shellac know the joy of tapping freshly manicured nails on a table after the polish has been cured by a UV light, but recent debate is questioning the safety of this treatment. An initial study found UV exposure can cause cell damage, and there have been a few reported cases of people who have developed skin cancer that might be related to salon UV exposure.

Hearing about the possibility of cancer is scary, but the risk of serious cell damage from an occasional manicure is low. 

“The bottom line is we think the UV lights are generally safe for most people. There is at least a little bit of risk, but it also takes decades of repeated exposure,” Schachtel says.  

More likely than cancer, she anticipates the UV lights might cause photoaging, where your skin is thinner and wrinkled because of extra UV exposure.  

Prevent or treat cell damage from UV light exposure 

Other than the obvious of skipping manicures that use UV lights (or limiting them to special occasions), you can lessen your exposure by wearing fingerless gloves or broad-spectrum sunscreen to your appointment. 

And again: it’s unlikely that cell damage from a UV light will lead to cancer. But if you notice a bump or growth around or under your nail that doesn’t go away, you’ll want to talk to your doctor, who will be able to rule out other potential causes and help provide treatment.   

Direct trauma: cut cuticles and lifted nails  

Let’s be honest, with all that clipping, snipping and scrubbing, your nails are going through it at a salon. Aggressive cleaning can separate your nail from the nail bed and if your nail tech removes your cuticles, it’s easier for infection to get in or the skin to become inflamed. 

“People remove their cuticles because it makes things look neater and provides a bigger surface for the polish. But your cuticles play an important role. Their job is to seal around your nails so things like water and infection can’t get under,” Schachtel says.  

Prevent or treat lifted nails and inflamed cuticles 

The prevention here is easy: simply ask your technician not to remove your cuticles, be it with solvent or nippers (clipping tools). While it can feel uncomfortable in the moment, it’s also important to say something and have your technician stop or use a gentler approach if a nail cleaning is irritating or painful.  

If you do notice your nail is separating from the bed, keep your nails cut short and refrain from cleaning beneath the nail or putting on a bandage (which can trap moisture and make things worse). On that note, you’ll want to avoid soaking your fingers, so skip that time in the pool and avoid submerging your hands while washing dishes. Plus, you guessed it: lay off trips to the nail salon to let yourself heal and see a dermatologist if things get worse.  

Allergies: red, spotty and itchy 

One of the more common allergens you’ll come across in a salon is acrylates, an ingredient in some nail polishes. Acetone, which is an ingredient in polishes and solvents used to prep your nails, isn't a true allergen, but it is an irritant that can cause skin dryness and brittle nails. 

Allergies are tricky because you might experience redness and rough skin on your nail, or you might have itchiness and redness on your eyelids, neck, hands and face.  

“Any new rashes should bring up the question of a possible allergy to a nail polish ingredient,” Schachtel says.   

Also tricky: nail polish manufactures can change the ingredients in their products without notifying customers, which means just because a polish worked for you before doesn’t mean it will always be allergen-free (or that you won’t develop an allergy over time).  

Prevent or treat nail polish allergies 

If you suspect a polish is causing allergies, remove it and stick with other options. If you cure your nails, be sure to remove any acrylate polish from your skin and completely cure the polish, as uncured acrylate polish is particularly prone to triggering allergies, Schachtel says.  

When in doubt, a dermatologist can do an allergy test called patch testing to determine what ingredients you are reacting to.  

Nails are fun, and they should be. Knowing you’re getting a new design without risking scaly, irritated skin? That’s even better.