Global craze for beautiful, long-lasting nails could have a hidden price
Demand has created a lucrative space for skilled technicians – but health risks are under scrutiny by scientists
It has become the new normal for thousands of women the world over: dazzling, brightly- coloured nails buffed to perfection.
And it’s not just suited-up professionals who sit in expansive boardrooms sporting them either.
Women from all walks of life are wearing them; from cashiers ringing up groceries to petrol attendants doling out fuel and checking tyre pressure, hairdressers, cooks, receptionists and even cleaners.
Gone are the days when nail services were only available from expensive spas.
Any hair salon with a free corner offers the service, while private technicians working from home are a dime a dozen in almost every city.
Some women like it plain, others are steadfast in their love for the French manicure look, with scores more dabbling in the global nail art craze.
Young and old of every colour are trying it out.
There is no denying that gel nails – the magic answer to keeping nails beautifully polished and chip-free for up to a month at a time – have increased in popularity.
Tracy Owgan said gel nails had become so popular and had seen an undeniable spike in those looking to qualify as nail technicians in the last three years.
She said scores of women, and surprisingly men as well, were leaving high-pressure jobs, often in the corporate sector, to paint nails full-time.
Owgan, who is the head lecturer and co-owner of Johannesburg-based beauty school The Image Cartel, said she trained 283 nail technologists in 2017, with hundreds more looking to qualify in their 2018 uptake.
She said the reason for the popularity in this career path was because it allowed one the freedom to work at one’s own pace and choice of premises too.
“There’s also a really high earning potential for nail technicians. Based on the number of clients one has and with the correct marketing, a nail technician could earn up to R1,000 per day,” Owgan said.
The earning potential is not surprising given that a gel overlay could cost anywhere between R100 and R300.
Acrylic nails are usually around R30 extra, while a full set of nail tips, with a basic colour included, costs between R300 and R400.
Nail art is usually charged per nail, ranging from R10 to R40, depending on the detail.
“More and more women are looking after themselves now and wanting to look good.
“Their nails are usually where they start,” Owgan added.
Angie Whitaker, a lecturer at East London-based Beauty Academy, who trained 20 women last year in the art of creating beautiful nails, said gel and acrylic nails were both in demand.
The difference between the two?
Gel is a polish that is applied to the nails that needs a UV lamp to cure. It has a longer life than normal nail polish applied at home, even lasting as long as four weeks with the correct application.
Acrylic – a heavy-duty product more suitable for those constantly working with their hands – is an extension of the natural nail that does not need a UV lamp to cure as it cures on its own using both acrylic liquid and an acrylic powder.
“Acrylic is more of a heavy- duty product, more so than gel. So for someone who is very rough on their hands, acrylic is more suited.
“It’s a bit of a contrast between the two but the principles remain the same.
“It’s just a different type of consistency that you would be working with and obviously just different curing and finishing off of the actual product,” Whitaker explained.
Both gel and acrylic nails have received a fair amount of negativity in the media in recent years with regard to possible health risks.
The UK Mirror this month wrote about a US beauty queen who was diagnosed with melanoma at the age of 18 two years ago, allegedly due to repeated gel manicures.
Karolina Jasko, now a 20-year-old contestant in the Miss USA pageant, is quoted as saying she was getting her nails done when she noticed a black line under her finger nails.
A doctor diagnosed her with the skin cancer, leaving Jasko with a scarred thumb and a number of lost fingernails following the treatment.
BBC News interviewed doctors from the British Association of Dermatologists last year who gave dire warnings against methyl methacrylate (MMA), a bonding agent used in artificial nail products.
When in contact with any part of the skin, this chemical is said to cause a rash on the body including on eyelids, face, neck and genital region.
In the worst case, nails can loosen and in very rare cases, breathing problems can occur.
A study that appeared in the American Journal of Infection Control titled “Evaluation of the Bacterial Burden of Gel Nails, Standard Nail Polish, and Natural Nails on the Hands of Health Care Workers” adds a little to the horror stories.
For the study – conducted at three health centres – the nails of 88 health care workers were painted with gel polish and standard polish.
Cultures were obtained on days one, seven and 14 of wear and before and after hand hygiene with alcohol hand gel.
According to the study, standard polish and natural nails may be more amenable to hand hygiene than gel polish, with gel nails being more difficult to clean using alcohol hand gel.
East London-based dermatologist Dr Zinzi Limba said the biggest concern with gel nails was the tools used by beauty therapists.
According to Limba, if these tools are not properly sterilised before and after use, it could lead to the spread of certain bacteria.
“Particularly if the client in question presents with any infectious condition or open sores when they go in to have their nails done,” she explained.
“But with regard to the use of the UV light, my experience and knowledge with them is so far limited to the treatment of skin conditions such as eczema and the autoimmune disease vitiligo. These treatments are specific to the patient in question and are not generalised, meaning a lot is taken into consideration before they are exposed to the light, such as their entire medical history, for example.
“In my knowledge, it’s a completely different type of UV light as the one used by beauty therapists when curing gel nails and people are exposed to it for a much shorter time.”
Whitaker said UV lamps were subject to certain standards and there were ways clients could protect their hands.
“You can also get mittens that you can put over your hands so it’s just the actual nail that is exposed to the light when it goes under the lamp. But the hands are in the nail lamp for such a small amount of time.
“Depending on the lamp, it ranges anywhere between 30 seconds to two minutes. Also, it’s a very low emitted light exposed to the hands.”
Is the lure of having beautiful hands worth the risk?
According to Whitaker, there was minimum risk if the correct techniques were used, and by someone with the knowledge and skill to apply them.
“Over the years, I've had gel overlay after gel overlay and my nails are 100% fine.
“I think it all comes down to your technician. This is what sets one technician apart from the competitors.”..