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Artificial Nails 

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Artificial nails (also sometimes known as “fake” or “false” nails) are artificial extensions of the natural nail and have become popular among UK consumers over recent years.

There are many different types of artificial nails, but only some are classed as cosmetic products.

What are artificial nails?

“Acrylic” nails and “gel” nails are where the artificial nail is ‘built up’ on the natural nail. Both are classified as cosmetic products and are based on similar chemistry. These products may be used in professional salons and nail bars and some will be available for home use.  All cosmetic products used or sold in salons are subject to the same strict European safety laws as those sold in retail outlets.

Traditional “false nails” that are already formed in a nail shape and are attached to the natural nail by glue are not classed as cosmetic products, neither is the glue.  This is because there is a clear definition of a cosmetic product in law and a cosmetic must be a ‘substance’ that performs a cosmetic function and cannot be an ‘article’.  Instead, these are classed as “general products” and will be subject to the General Product Safety Regulation (GPSR).  The GPSR requires that products must be safe.

How are acrylic/gel nails applied?

Acrylic nails are prepared by mixing a liquid acrylic monomer (most commonly ethyl methacrylate (EMA) or methyl methacrylate (MMA)) with a solid acrylic powder (most commonly acrylates copolymer and polyethylmethacrylate) to form a ‘paste’ which is then ‘painted’ onto the natural nail.  The liquid acrylic monomer is usually a mixture of methacrylate monomers and an ingredient to speed up the hardening process called a ‘catalyst’.  The solid acrylic powder is usually made from methacrylate polymers, colours and an ingredient to start the hardening process called an ‘initiator’.  The paste hardens quite quickly and can then be shaped as required.

Gel nails require ‘curing’ or hardening by UV (ultra violet) light from a UV or LED lamp.  The gel, usually a mixture of methacrylate monomers (most commonly hydroxyethyl methacrylate and hydroxypropyl methacrylate) and a light sensitive initiator, is placed on the natural nail and then cured under a UV lamp.  The curing is a hardening process which turns the (soft) monomer into a (hard) polymer.  Although the gel nail products are classed as cosmetic products, the UV light source required for curing them won’t be, but the lamps will be covered by electrical equipment laws.

Allergic Reactions

In a small number of cases, the uncured (unreacted) methacrylate monomers can produce an allergic reaction if they come into contact with the skin. 

Dermatologists are seeing more patients with allergies to UV-cured artificial nails. 

Whether visiting a nail salon or carrying out a home manicure  it is extremely important that all information labelled on-pack and the directions for use are read and followed carefully every time, to ensure that any uncured monomer is removed following the curing process. 

The nail system should only be used with the corresponding LED or UV lamp which is specified by the manufacturer.  If the incorrect lamp and nail system are used together, the nail system may not be fully cured, which can lead to more uncured methacrylate monomers remaining on the nail surface and a possible increased risk of allergy.

This is especially important for home use, to make sure the product is used and applied as intended.

If you have any concerns about your nails and how to care for them, do speak with your nail salon professional who will be able to advise you on how often you should have your artificial nails applied and how to keep your nails in best condition.

Acrylates have a wide range of applications, including in certain medical and dental procedures.  If an individual develops an allergy to methacrylate chemicals, through exposure to the chemicals in any of these applications, this can have implications for any future dental and medical procedures.