How I Developed a Nail Polish Allergy After 15+ Years of Manicures

Elena Taranenko


Yes, you read that correctly. I developed an allergy to nail polish after religiously painting my nails for over 15 years. I know it seems crazy…everyone paints their nails. Even some extremely health conscious women still get manicures. It’s one of those things that we don’t give any thought to.


So why is this falling under “Gut Health”? I guess the more appropriate category would be “Immune Health”, but I digress—I truly believe this is an important topic that needs to be one of discussion today. In fact, there has been a huge increase in articles on this topic. Nail polish has become a hot allergen in recent years. Just do a Google search and you’ll be met with articles from Shape, Bustle, Livestrong, even NAILS Magazine itself confirming the realness of this. There’s even a publication by online medical journal database NCBI, a sector of the US National Library of Medicine. There are also several articles from international dermatology medical journals. Now what does that tell you?


Here’s my personal story—I loved painting my nails and I had been painting them since I was in middle school. Painting my nails was a sort of therapy for me. It was something I did to wind down after work. It made me feel put together and I loved fishing for the perfect color in my bottomless bag of bottles. I pushed back my cuticles, trimmed them, smoothed the nail, filed down the edge …the works. I was a pro. So it’s not hard to imagine the devastation when I discovered that I had developed an allergy to nail polish that would never go away. More on that in a bit.


I went to the dermatologist, convinced that my lifetime bad habit of finger picking was to blame. It wasn’t. After several rounds of steroid creams and antibiotic shots, I stopped going back and decided to conduct my own experiment. I’m not a fan of either of those treatments because I knew it was unlikely to address the root of my problem,  but I needed to start somewhere. My dermatologist suggested patch testing in the end, but after 3 unsuccessful appointments the $40 copays got expensive and my faith in western medicine was wavering. I soon realized that the first few days after I would paint my nails, my cuticles would swell up with these oozy microblisters that itched like crazy. They made me MISERABLE. I had sausage fingers and ladies I think we can all agree, that ain’t cute.


Originally, I thought the nail polish remover itself was to blame. I tried several different varieties…acetone free, acetone, other more holistic varieties, but my reactions would never begin until after my nails had been painted. If I let a day or two go by without repainting, my fingers would be fine. Ruling the remover out, I thought maybe the gel I used to dissolve my cuticles was responsible. I stopped using it and soon determined it wasn’t that either. I started to realize that my polish itself could be the culprit…the horror! So I stopped painting to let my fingers heal, and then reintroduced polish after a few weeks. My reactions returned within 12 hours and there I had my answer. The worst part? Through a little bit of research I learned that once your react to these chemicals, you will react for the rest of your life.


Joanna Kosinska


What I developed is called contact dermatitis from overexposure, also known as delayed hypersensitivity. In layman’s terms? Too much exposure to the harsh chemicals in nail polish caused my body to eventually say “nah I’m good. I’m done with this toxic junk”.


And yes, the chemicals in nail polish really are that bad, especially if someone isn’t opting for the newly popular 3, 5, or 7 free brands. The interesting part? These chemicals are so toxic that even being exposed to the fumes can illicit immune reactions. Nail polish chemical sensitivities have been known to cause rashes and irritation on eyelids, the neck, and even lips. True, many polishes nowadays are committing to being at least 3 free and eliminating the “toxic trio” of formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and toluene, but contact dermatitis doesn’t stop there.


Methyl acrylate, another ingredient in almost all nail polish, can cause the same reaction. Even worse, butylated hydroxyanisol, an ingredient found in gel polishes specifically is a known carcinogen. And while we’re on the topic of carcinogens, let’s talk about that UV light. Though it may be just a few minutes each time, if you’re getting them done every 2 weeks that adds up to some pretty significant exposure over a lifetime. UV tanning beds have pretty much been blacklisted, so why are UV nail lights any different? Nail polish is a silent toxic mess, and in a weird way I’m kind of grateful that this happened to me. It prevented me from continuing to expose my body to these harsh chemicals for many more years.


So is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Yes, though it’s more of a glimmer. There’s a movement towards making nail polish less toxic, but that’s still kind of an oxymoron. 3 free, 5 free, and 7 free polishes have hit the market—the number represents the number of highly toxic chemicals that have been eliminated. To put it in perspective, I still reacted to the 7 free, though my symptoms were more delayed than with the others. I recently tried a 13 free and am able to wear it sparingly. I cannot consistently paint and repaint my nails with it, or I will start having reactions. There are also water-based nail polishes and stickers, which are pretty much all I can use at the moment. They don’t last long, but for a special event or a vacation it’s a nice solution.


So there you have it, the ugly truth behind pretty nails. It was a tough pill for me to swallow, but now I’ve made peace with my unpainted nails and will continue to experiment with water-based polishes until I find one that I love. While I always and forever will live by “everything in moderation”, I do think it’s important that we start to think twice about the products we are using on our bodies. If people are developing biological intolerances and immune responses to these substances, maybe it’s time we start paying attention.

2 thoughts on “How I Developed a Nail Polish Allergy After 15+ Years of Manicures”

  1. I have the same problem. It is healing to hear of a similar person having a similar problem. So.. it doesn’t go away? Ok I also will learn to live with it. I share your sadness about having nail polish allergy.

  2. Hi Amber,

    Can you please share the water based polishes or the stickers you tried and liked? I suspect that I might also suffer the same thing you did – our story looks the same, except my rashes appear on my face, neck, and eyelids. I would love to learn more.

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