Nail enhancements blamed for “contact allergy epidemic” in UK and Ireland

Dermatologists are warning that (meth)acrylate chemicals – a key ingredient in acrylic, gel and gel-polish nails – is causing a “contact allergy epidemic” in the UK and Ireland. 

The British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) has raised concerns after a study – Epidemic of (Meth)acrylate Allergy in the UK Requires Routine Patch Testing – found that 2.4% of people tested had an allergy to at least one type of (meth)acrylate chemical.

There are many different types of (meth)acrylate chemicals, such as 2-hydroxyethyl methacrylate, 2-hydroxypropyl methacrylate and ethyl acrylate

In the report’s audit of 13 UK and Irish dermatology units during 2017, 4,931 patients were tested for (meth)acrylate allergy in the three main types of nail enhancements – acrylic, gel (derived from methacrylates) and gel-polish (a pre-mixed product and hybrid of gel and nail varnish). 

1.5% tested positive to 2-hydroxyethyl methacrylate (2-HEMA), which is the most common type to cause allergic sensitisation; while 2.4% tested positive to at least one type of (meth)acrylate, the report found.  

Just under two thirds (60%) developed their allergy through what was termed “recreational exposure”, in all cases due to the use of nail enhancements or to nail and/or eyelash glue. In 33% of cases occupational sensitisation was the issue, with a large number of these people having worked or currently working as nail techs.  

The curing issue

Experts say that when uncured products come into contact with any part of the skin, sensitisation to the chemicals can occur. They are warning the public to be particularly wary of gel and gel-polish home kits, where insufficient curing can increase the risk of developing an allergy. 

Reactions can involve the nails loosening, a red, itchy rash, and very rarely, symptoms such as breathing problems. The study revealed that 26% of people were applying nail enhancements at home, with 11% saying they found the kit instructions inadequate.  

Dr Deidre Buckley, from the Royal United Hospital Bath and consultant dermatologist leading the 2017 audit, commented: “We 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.”

BAD calls for change 

(Meth)acrylates are not routinely included in patch tests, and BAD is calling for this to change. The body ran its own survey on the issue and found of 742 people attending dermatology clinics in the UK in 2016 and 2017, 19% experienced adverse effects from acrylic nails applied in salons, while 16% suffered a reaction from gel-polish nails applied in salon. 

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. 

“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.” 

He added: “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.”

Earlier this year, health concerns over usage of UV lamps in gel-polish manicures re-emerged, despite a lack of evidence that normal use is linked to skin cancer. 

Plus, Katie Barnes, Professional Beauty’s Nail Professional of the Year 2018, shares her top advice on how to warn clients about the dangers of DIY gel-polish kits