Chemical Overexposure and Allergic Reaction

Remembering our High School chemistry classes, we understand that everything we come in contact with is a chemical, except for light and electricity. We are exposed to chemicals when we bathe, shampoo our hair, use cleaning solutions, laundry detergent, nail products and a host of other items we use every day. (A newborn baby’s skin is 100% chemical.) These chemicals are in no way harmful as long as we follow the safe directions and instructions for use and read and understand the warning labels.

Learning how to identify and prevent overexposure to nail chemicals for our clients and ourselves should be a top priority. Overexposure that results in allergic reaction can be prevented. It all starts with paying specific attention to our preparation, application and finishing techniques, knowing our products and using ventilation in the salon.

Nail technicians and their clients are exposed to a wide variety of potential allergens in the salon. We wipe our monomer soaked brushes on the table towel and then rest our arms in the same spot. We use our fingers or our wet brush to clean off any product that has over-run the clients cuticle or sidewall lines. We allow nail dust to collect on the skin of our hands and arms, while our arms rest on a wet, dusty table towel. We use drills at higher than recommended speeds which can throw the nail dust in our faces and into our breathing zone. If we wear masks to protect ourselves from vapors or dusts, we rarely change them, or we wear the wrong type mask. These practices, among others, can cause overexposure to potentially harmful chemicals which will result in sensitivity and allergic reaction.

Allergic Contact Dermatitis develops in stages — it does not happen overnight. There is a period during which an individual may be continually in contact with an allergen without developing any skin reaction, which can last a lifetime or only a few days. The allergenic action of a substance depends on its ability to change some properties of the outer layer of the skin. This layer acts as a protective barrier against toxic substances. Some substances, such as primer, can remove fats and oils. Other substances, such as prep, polish remover and other solvents, can remove moisture from the skin. These substances diminish the protective action of the skin and make it easier for substances to penetrate the skin.

The skin allergy really begins with a process called sensitization. It starts with the penetration of allergenic substances into the outer layer of the skin. The process lasts from four days to three weeks; during this period there are no signs of skin damage. Once penetrated, the allergenic substance combines with the natural skin proteins which is then carried throughout the body by white blood cells called lymphocytes.

Lymphocytes are part of the immune system which guards the body against germ or alien substances. The immune system has a ‘memory’ to recognize and neutralize germs or substances encountered more than once. When sensitized persons are re-exposed, lymphocytes recognize the allergen and react with it. They also release tissue-damaging chemicals called lymphokines which cause itching, pain, redness, swelling, and the formation of small wheals or blisters on the skin. This inflammation is usually confined to the site of contact, but in severe cases it may spread to cover large areas of the body. The reaction usually starts within twelve hours of exposure and is at its worst after three to four days, and slowly improves in about seven days. The allergic sensitization may remain with the individual through life, although if there is no further contact with the allergen, the level of sensitivity may gradually decline.

Irritant Contact Dermatitis can develop after a short, heavy exposure or a repeated or prolonged low exposure to a substance. The appearance of irritant contact dermatitis varies considerably according to the conditions of exposure. For example, an accidental contact with a strong irritant causes immediate blisters. Contact with a mild irritant may only produce redness of the skin. However, if the irritation continues, small lesions or sores appear on the reddened area; afterward, crusts and scales form. The skin damage usually heals a few weeks after exposure ends if no complications have arisen (no infections occurred).

To produce the damage, the irritant substance must infiltrate the outer layer of skin where it will come into contact with cells and tissues. The substance also reacts with certain chemicals naturally present (endogenous) in cells and tissues. These reactions produce skin damage. The body’s first reaction to the damage is localized acute inflammation. The cells and tissues try to repair the damage and set up a defensive response to remove the invading material causing the damage. During the body’s defensive response phase, a person may experience pain, warmth, redness and swelling in the irritated area. Minimal skin damage, as in thickening of the inner layer of the skin, will not be visible. However, when the damage is severe, the skin shows signs of chapping, scaling, and blistering and some skin cells also die. Typically, an irritant reaction develops within a few hours from exposure and is at its worst after approximately 24 hours.


This photograph is of a client that has experienced a severe allergic reaction to acrylics. Note the dry, red, peeling skin around the cuticle and sidewall lines. The lifted nail plate will grow forward as new cells replace the old.

Factors contributing to irritation include

  • The chemical properties of the substance (for example, is it an acid, an alkali, or a salt).
  • The amount and concentration of chemical coming into contact with the skin.
  • The length and frequency of the exposure.

It is this type of allergic reaction that is most evident in nail technicians and their clients.

The Above Information Contributed by: Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety.

What can we do to prevent overexposure and allergic reaction?

  1. Never touch the brush hairs with your fingers, or allow the brush to touch the clients skin.
  2. Never apply product too wet or allow the wet brush to touch the prepared nail plate.
  3. Use disposable towels when wiping your brush, and discard them after use and before filing.
  4. Leave a tiny margin all around the cuticle and sidewall lines free of product. This will prevent overexposure and allow for air-tight retention of product to the nail plate.
  5. Wear a long-sleeved smock to prevent dusts from settling on your skin.
  6. Wear a mask specifically designed for dusts when filing, and change it often.
  7. Install a local exhaust ventilation system to rid your salon of potentially harmful vapors.
  8. Use dispenser bottles that have small openings only large enough for the brush to enter.
  9. Monomer soaked pads should be placed in a sealed bag before being placed in the trashcan.
  10. Monomer soaked or dust laden towels should be removed from the table top and laundered separately from other salon laundry.
  11. Trashcan liners should be changed daily.
  12. Never pour more liquid into your dappen dish than is needed for the type of application you are performing.
  13. Wear protective glasses to prevent dusts or flying debris from entering and damaging your eyes.
  14. Never smoke, eat or drink at the nail table. Vapors and dust can settle on your food or in your drink, and the ‘flick of a Bic’ can cause a spark that can ignite flammable airborne vapors.
  15. Never let dust accumulate.
  16. Always keep MSDS on all products used in your salon.
  17. Read and follow the product manufacturers application instructions and the warning labels on your products.
  18. Store nail chemicals in a cool, dark place and away from sources of heat or flame. Store nail chemicals in a separate location from hair chemicals – the vapors of some of these products are not compatible with each other, and can often create a undesirable and potentially hazardous chemical reaction.

For a more detailed explanation of overexposure and allergic reactions to nail chemicals, please read: Nail Anatomy and Product Chemistry by Douglas D. Schoon available through Milady Publishing.