The British Association of Dermatologists has today issued a warning that (meth)acrylate chemicals, the key ingredients in acrylic nails, gel nails and gel polish nails, are causing a contact allergy epidemic in the UK and Ireland.

Their concerns are based on a study which has found that 2.4 per cent of people tested had an allergy to at least one type of (meth)acrylate chemical. This trend is a Europe-wide phenomenon, overwhelmingly affecting women.

The study looked at three main types of nail enhancements containing (meth)acrylates:

  • Gel nails are derived from meth(acrylates) that can be applied over the natural nail or used to sculpt extensions. The gel needs to be ‘cured’ or hardened under a UV (ultraviolet) lamp. It cannot be removed by soaking and must be buffed off from the nail.
  • Acrylic nails are mixed in the salon; the paste is applied over a natural nail or used to create length by adding tips. It is then left to harden with exposure to air. Acrylic nails are recommended to be removed by soaking in acetone.
  • Gel polish, possibly becoming the most popular of the three options, is a premixed product and a hybrid of gel and nail varnish. It has a similar consistency to nail polish and is applied in a similar way. Once applied it also requires ‘curing’ (hardening) with the use of a UV lamp. Gel polish is recommended to be removed by soaking in acetone.

Concerns have been raised about all three options, even if professionally applied. It is when the uncured products come into contact with any part of the skin that sensitisation to the chemicals can occur. This is very likely when people apply a product themselves, or if insufficient training has been given to the nail technician. Dermatologists are urging the public to be particularly wary of gel and gel polish home kits, where insufficient curing can also increase the risk of an individual developing an allergy.

Allergic reactions may involve the nails loosening, or a severe red, itchy rash, not just on the fingertips, but potentially anywhere on the body that has come into contact with the nails, including the eyelids, face, neck and genital region. Very rarely, symptoms such as breathing problems can occur.

(Meth)acrylates are also the main substance used in the production of acrylic plastics. They are used in the graphic and printing industry, aircraft manufacture, adhesives, orthopaedic cement, dressings and dentistry.

However, it is their use in the nail enhancement industry and subsequent increasingly widespread exposure which is causing alarm amongst dermatologists.

As (meth)acrylates are not routinely included in allergy assessments, known as patch tests, the rate of allergy has largely remained under the radar. There are now calls for this to change.
In an audit of 13 UK and Irish dermatology units during 2017*, a total of 4931 patients were tested for (meth)acrylate allergy.

  • 1.5 per cent tested positive to 2-hydroxyethyl methacrylate (2-HEMA), the most common (meth)acrylate to cause allergic sensitisation

After 2-HEMA, the next two top acrylates eliciting a positive reaction were

  • 2-hydroxypropyl methacrylate (1%) and 
  • ethyl acrylate (0.9%); the latter can also be found in medical and other adhesives.

Sixty per cent of patients in the study developed their allergy through what was termed ‘recreational exposure’, in all cases due either to the use of nail enhancements, or to nail and/or eyelash glue.

In 33 per cent of cases, occupational sensitisation was the issue, and an overwhelming number of these people worked as nail beauticians. In the remaining seven per cent of cases, exposure was due to other sources such as medical adhesives and dental materials.

The audit also found that this allergy is predominantly found in women, who made up 93 per cent of those affected.

A separate survey** run by the British Association of Dermatologists, with the help of Stylfile from Apprentice Winner Tom Pellereau and Lord Sugar, of 742 people attending dermatology clinics found that 19 per cent of respondents had experienced adverse effects from acrylic nails applied in salons, and 16 per cent from gel polish nails applied in salons. Adverse effects included nail damage and allergic dermatitis such as itching and swelling of the hands, eyelids, cheeks and neck. This study also found that 26 per cent of people were applying nail enhancements at home, with 11 per cent stating they found the kit instructions inadequate.

Dr David Orton, of the British Association of Dermatologists, said:

“It is really important that people know they can develop allergies from artificial nails. The truth is that there will be many women out there with these allergies who remain undiagnosed, because they may not link their symptoms to their nails, especially if the symptoms occur elsewhere on the body. It is important that they get a diagnosis so that they can avoid the allergen, but also because developing an allergy to these chemicals can have lifelong consequences for dental treatments and surgeries where devices containing these allergens are in common use.

“The risk is particularly high for beauticians and other professionals who work with nail enhancements. Wearing protective gloves is not enough as (meth)acrylates will pass directly through many glove types. Salon owners need to consider the level of training they offer staff in this area as there is a genuine occupational hazard that should be mitigated. An important precaution is to use nitrile gloves which are replaced and disposed of every 30 minutes and removed with a ‘no touch’ technique. (Meth)acrylates should be kept away from all direct skin contact. The training also needs to reduce the chances of initiating an allergy in their clients.“

Dr Deirdre Buckley, from the Royal United Hospital Bath, President of the British Society of Cutaneous Allergy and the Consultant Dermatologist leading the 2017 audit of 13 dermatology units, said:

“Allergy to (meth)acrylates has the potential to behave like many of the other significant contact allergy epidemics that have occurred in the last few decades. Although the rate of allergy to (meth)acrylates is continuing to increase, many doctors are unaware of the issue, and these chemicals are not routinely included in patch tests. We are now recommending that all dermatologists patch test to (meth)acrylates routinely.“

“We would particularly urge people to be careful when using home kits. If you do use one, make sure that you use the recommended UV lamp for curing, and read the instructions carefully. Using the wrong lamp may mean that the gel polish does not cure properly, and this means an increased chance of allergy. Avoid any direct skin contact with the (meth)acrylate nail product.”

The researchers also noted that the issues with nail enhancements are not just limited to allergic reactions to the nails themselves, but also to nail glues, used to glue on pre-sculpted nails. The glues contain chemicals called cyanoacrylates, which are also used in ‘super glues’ and can cause severe allergic reactions.