How To Identify Nail Allergies And Irritations

Nail Allergies: What You Need To Know Before Getting A Manicure

The worse case scenario: you just got your nails done with some beautiful nail art, but you notice a rash is starting to appear. What should you do? Keep reading to know how to tell the difference between nail allergies and irritations, and what common nail products can cause them.

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Allergic Reaction VS Irritation To Nail Products

Any bad reaction to a nail product isn't pleasant. However, it's important to know the differences between a nail product allergy and an irritation. This will help you treat your condition and avoid allergic reactions in the future.

Here are the main differences between nail allergies and irritations caused by nail cosmetics.


Nail allergies develop over time through a process called sensitization. When you're exposed to the allergen for the first time, you might not feel anything at all. However, over weeks, months, or years of repeated exposure, you'll start to get reactions that get worse each time.

Allergic reactions to manicure products commonly result in a type of rash called atopic dermatitis or eczema. Symptoms appear as redness, dryness, and itchiness. In some cases, blisters can form.

Even though nail enhancement products are often only applied to the nails, this type of rash can also show up anywhere on the body. According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Hadley King, this happens because after getting a manicure, you can spread the allergen by simply touching other parts of your body.


Skin irritations caused by nail products are much more common. They happen due to overexposure (too much product used) or repeated low exposure. Symptoms like redness and blisters show up pretty much within minutes or hours of an irritant coming into contact with the skin. The rashes that appear are called contact dermatitis. They are localized, meaning that they only appear in the areas that have come into contact with the offending ingredient. 

Why Skin Irritations Can Make Allergy Symptoms Worse

An allergy may become worse due to skin irritations because the skin barrier is weakened or broken. Our skin is a protective layer that prevents small harmful particles like bacteria from getting into our bodies. Once these germs get inside, our bodies start fighting off the invaders which results in an allergic reaction.

What Do Nail Allergies Look Like?

Although much less common, allergy to manicure products can happen with repeated exposure. Here are conditions to look out for:


Skin allergy symptoms usually start with swollen, red, and itchy skin around the nails. This increases the chance of infection or paronychia, which is when germs like bacteria and fungi get through broken skin. When this happens, the initial allergy symptoms will get worse, and pus can form.

Atopic Dermatitis or Eczema

As mentioned above, eczema (dry, itchy, red rashes) can form as a result of skin contact with potential allergens. And this isn't just in the spots where the products are used on the nails. Allergens can also be transferred to places like your face (including the eyelids!), neck, and anywhere else you touch. 


A nail cosmetic allergy can also affect your nail plate. Some nail clients start feeling a burning sensation underneath their nails. This then turns into onycholysis, which is when the nail starts lifting off and separating from the nail bed. You can tell that your nail has separated because there's a noticeable gap underneath your nail. The lifted area can also become discolored, usually a whitish, yellow color.

Dip Nail Flu

This is the name commonly used to describe a set of flu or cold-like symptoms that result from allergy to the powder or liquid monomer used for Dip Powder Nails. Symptoms include watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, irritated lungs, nausea, headache, and lethargy. 


A feeling of numbness or tingling sensation can be a result of developing an allergy to certain nail treatments. This often alarming condition is called paresthesia. It doesn't usually cause pain, and is described as being similar to the feeling of having 'pins and needles' in a limb.

Nail Polish Allergy Ingredients

Traditional nail polishes, also known as nail varnishes or enamels, can contain ingredients that cause allergic reactions. These potential nail allergens include:

  • Nitrocellulose - Adds gloss and shine to top coats.
  • Tosylamide formaldehyde resin, alkyd resins, acrylates, vinyl, polyesters - Helps base coats stick to the nail plate.
  • Camphor, dibutyl phthalate, dioctyl phthalate, tricresyl phosphate - Adds gloss and shine to top coats, and helps with flexibility as the polish dries.
  • Colorants - Creates different hues and shades for nail polish colors.
  • Guanine, bismuth oxychloride - Adds glitter or sparkle to nail polishes.

A study by the North American Contact Dermatitis Group (NACDG) found that Tosylamide formaldehyde resin, also known as toluenesulfonamide formaldehyde resin, is one of the top ten ingredients to cause allergic contact dermatitis in individuals who are allergic to cosmetic products.

Potential Allergens in Gel Or Acrylic Nails

Artificial nails include the use of gels (hard gel, soft gel, and gel nail polishes) and acrylics on top of the natural nail (overlays) or to add length to short nails. An acrylate allergy is the most common with gel and acrylic nails.

These are the different types of acrylates found in acrylic and gel products:

  • Methacrylate, ethyl 2-cyanoacrylate - Found in nail glues used to attach nail tips and press on nails.
  • Methyl methacrylate monomer - Also known as MMA, and has been banned for use in the nail industry by the FDA since 1974.
  • Ethyl methacrylate - Commonly found in artificial nail enhancement products.

Other artificial nail ingredients that can cause an allergic reaction:

  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Hydroquinone

What Is HEMA?

HEMA stands for hydroxyethyl methacrylate, and is found primarily in gel polishes. In 2018, it was named as a high-level allergen by the British Association of Dermatologists. HEMA allergies are usually associated with gel polish nails that are not cured properly. This happens when you're using the wrong lamp (too weak) or not putting your nails in the UV or LED light long enough.

Other Nail Care Products You Can Develop Allergies To

Here are some other items used in manicures that could increase the risk of allergies in nail clients:

  • Alcohol, toluene, ethyl acetate, butyl acetate - Solvents used to dilute, or remove polishes.
  • Sodium or potassium hydroxide - Found in cuticle softeners and removers.
  • Latex gloves - Many nail professionals wear disposable gloves to protect themselves. Since a lot of people are allergic to latex, nitrile gloves are recommended.

What To Do If You Have A Nail Cosmetic Allergy

Whether you're having a nail cosmetic allergy or irritation, a well trained nail technician should be able to identify that something bad is going on. Good nail techs will keep a detailed health record, and a list of products used in nail services for every client. This is why it's a good idea to stick with the same nail professional instead of trying a new nail salon every time you get your nails done.

Depending on the type of allergy, your nail tech may or may not remove your nail enhancement before you go see a dermatologist or doctor. To combat inflammation and ease itchiness, you may be prescribed a steroid cream. In some cases, you may be referred to an allergist to confirm your allergy with a patch test.

If you find out which ingredient you are allergic to, you should avoid nail products that contain them. 

Here are some products to check out:


How Do I Know If I'm Allergic To Nail Treatments?

Can Gel Polish Manicures Cause Allergic Reactions?

Can Shellac Cause Nails To Fall Off?

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About the Author Catherine

As a kid, I discovered the world of Japanese nail art through a magazine and since then, I haven't been able to stop thinking about anything related to nails! After following a more traditional educational path and earning my Bachelor's of Science in Food and Nutrition, I decided it was time to pursue my childhood passion. In 2015, I earned my diploma from Blanche Macdonald’s Nail Technology Program. After that, I got certified with YUMI Lashes and opened Sunday Beauty Boutique in 2017. These days, I'm focused on providing a 'no rush' experience to a select clientele, teaching as a nail instructor at Blanche Macdonald, as well as providing resources on beauty related topics to clients and estheticians on my blog.

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