What are Acrylic Nails?
Acrylic nails are a clear heat sensitive plastic often referred to as false nails. They cover most of the nail plate (refer to parts of the nail) and are fairly hardy and resistant to different environmental conditions.
The term acrylic nails is now widely used to describe all manner of false nails including fiber, silk and gel nails. It may be applied as a pre-molded film or more commonly as a liquid mixture that can be shaped once it dries.
Primarily used as a beauty accessory, acrylic nails also provide additional nail length and mask brittle and discolored nails. Once fitted, the false nail provides a new surface for buffing and painting.
Can Acrylic Nails Damage my Natural Nail?
If fitted properly, acrylic nails are usually not problematic. However long term use and poorly fitted nails can seriously damage the nail bed and hamper natural nail growth. The most common problem associated with acrylic nails is a fungal infection that may develop between the false and natural nail (ochynomycosis).
Long term use of acrylic nails can also hamper natural nail growth resulting in severely deformed finger nails. This may cause a number of defects including fingernail ridges, thickened, rough nails or discolored nails. Rarely, a dermatitis (skin inflammation) may occur on the skin surrounding the nail and this can be complicated with a bacterial infection (paronychia). Good nail care is essential to maintaining healthy nails even with the use of acrylic nails.
What is Nail fungus in Acrylic Nails?
Nail fungus often occurs with poorly fitted acrylic nails or any disturbance to the originalfit. It affects the natural nail plate, nail bed (the skin under the nail) and nail folds (skin around the nail). The acrylic nail is inorganic and cannot be infected with a fungus or bacteria. It often masks underlying infections until the symptoms of nail fungus are evident.
Fungi require three sustaining factors to develop and grow – warmth, moisture and darkness. For this reason, a fungal infection of the toe nail is more common especially in people who wear closed shoes or perspire profusely. Acrylic nails usually form a tight sealwith the natural nail when properly fitted. However any gap that may result between the acrylic and natural nail can provide an ideal environment for fungal growth. The fungus quickly spreads along the nail plate and can cause significant deformity of the nail.
The nail may become discolored losing its natural shine and luster. It may thicken and become brittle and crumble. A powdery residue is often noticed as a result of the fungus consuming the keratin of the nail. A prolonged infection may cause deformity of the shape of the nail with significant darkening of the nail plate. If the infection remains untreated, the nail plate can detach from the nail bed (onycholysis).
What Causes Nail Fungus?
The causative fungus can range between dermatophytes, yeasts (e.g. Candida) and molds. Typically, dermatophytes are the most common cause of nail fungus with the Trichophyton species (T.rubrum and T.interdigitale) being the predominant pathogen. (1)
How Can I Get a Nail Fungus if I Use Acrylic Nails?
A poorly fitted acrylic nail is only one of the predisposing factors for a fungal infection of the nail. Other predisposing factors for the development of a nail fungus include damage to the nail or surrounding skin, tropical environments with a high fungal spore count in the air and repeated exposure to fungal spores or infections. Fungal infections of the nail often arises as a secondary infection from scratching other infected sites on the body like the feet or groin area.
How is a Nail Fungus Treated?
Treatment should focus on eradicating the nail fungus with the use of both oral (itraconazole or terbinafine) and topical (ciclopirox) agents. Treatment may be continued for 6 weeks to 3 months as a preventative measure.
Effective natural treatments include the use of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil as a topical agent as it is effective against both dermatophytes (2) and yeasts (3) which are typically resistant to azole antifungal treatments.
How Can I Prevent a Nail Fungus?
Conservative management on the part of the patient is crucial to maintaining a fungus free environment. Proper drying of the affected area coupled with drying agents like antifungal powders can assist with reducing recurrence of the fungus. (4) It may be advisable to remove all acrylic nails until the infection resolves.
If the fungal infection does not resolve it is essential to exclude other conditions that cause nail deformity including psoriasis vulgaris, dermatitis, diabetes and circulatory disorders. Malnutrition may also contribute to brittle and crumbling nails which may be noticed in calcium and iron deficiencies.
What Other Conditions may Arise from Using Acrylic Nails?
A nail fungus is the most common affliction of using acrylic nails. However other conditions that affect nail health can be equally distressing. A dermatitis of the surrounding skin may occur due to hypersensitivity to the nail adhesives or components.
Poor quality acrylic nails have been identified as the most common cause of dermatitis and subsequent damage to the nail plate. The use of now prohibited substances in acrylic nails, methyl metacrylate is known to significantly damage the nail plate and folds. Although prohibited, unscrupulous manicurists may use this compound to reduce costs so it is advisable to use a reputable salon.(5) Poorly fitted and loose nails may cause repeated irritation and abrasion of the nail folds.
Professional fitting of acrylic nails is therefore advised and any damage of the acrylic nail should be attended to immediately. Inflammation of the nail folds and nail bed may be complicated by a bacterial infection (paronychia) if there is any breakage of the surrounding skin. There has been significant media hype around the dangers of acrylic nails to natural nail health. Prolonged and constant use of acrylic nails can affect nail growth and cause deformities. However, over 50% of nail deformities are caused by nail fungus.
How can I Remove Acrylic Nails?
It is advisable to have your acrylic nails removed by a professional manicurist. Soaking your hand in acetone for long periods or using high strength acetone can cause contact dermatitis. Rather follow these few simple steps:
- Cut your acrylic nails as short as possible with a nail clipper.
- File down any excess areas that cannot be clipped.
- Soak your fingers in a small bowl of standard nail polish remover for 10 to 15 minutes. Remember to protect your nail folds and fingertips by applying petroleum jelly on the skin before soaking.
- Gently peel off nails. If the acrylic nails are not easily separating from the natural nail, then re-soak fingers.
- Buff and file down any remaining adhesive.
Try not to replace a recently removed acrylic nail with a new set. Allow the fingers and nails time to adjust to the change before replacing the acrylic nails. Remember that this should not be a long term beauty accessory.
Our hands are as important in our daily social interaction as our face. They are an extension of our natural expression in communication and the primary form of contact with other people. Acrylic nails often enhance the physical appearance of our hands as a whole.
Deformities of the nails can prove to be embarrassing once there is discoloration and damage of the nail plate. Recent studies have indicated that patients with onychomycosis may experience significant psychosocial stress due to the stigmatization associated with this condition.(6)
Acrylic nails should therefore be cared for with the same conscientious approach to hygiene as we care for other parts of our body like our teeth. Regular maintenance with attention to chips, cracks and other damage and proper washing and drying of the hands can often prevent most complications.
- Mycology Online.
- Hammer, K.A. et al, In vitro activity of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil against dermatophytesand other filamentous fungi. Oxford Journals : The Journalof Antimicrobial Chemotherapy 2002.
- Bagg, J. et al, Susceptibility to Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil of yeasts isolated from the mouths of patients with advanced cancer. Pubmed 2006.
- US Food and Drug Administration.
- Szepietowski, J.C. et al, Stigmatization in onychomycosis patients: a population-based study. Pubmed 2008.
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on April 12, 2011