Acrylic nails add something extra to your look—literally, taking your nails to new lengths. Long before gels, acrylics were the standard for a lavish nail look that endured. But here's the thing: Acrylics can often damage your natural nails, causing them to yellow.
We went straight to the nail experts—medical pedicurist Marcela Correa and board-certified dermatologist Michele Green, MD—to investigate how yellowing after acrylics occurs, what to do about it, and treatment options. Read on for what they told us.
Meet the Expert
What Are Acrylic Nails?
Correa explains that acrylics "are created by mixing a liquid monomer and a powder polymer to form a moldable paste that can be used to mimic the look of a real nail once hardened and shaped properly." Green notes that another chemical, ethyl methacrylate (EMA), is used during the acrylic process. "EMA is an adhesive that allows the artificial nails to mold and adhere to the natural nail," she says. "EMA is most common in acrylic nail products today and safe for use. Methyl methacrylate (MMA) is another bonding agent used in nail products."
Green continues: "This monomer has been shown to cause irritation and respiratory problems from the constant inhalation of harmful chemicals, as well as allergic reactions like contact dermatitis." She adds that "the FDA has removed products containing 100 percent MMA monomer from the market, although there is no regulation that specifically prohibits the use of MMA in cosmetic products."
Correa says that the popularity of acrylic nails is due to their aesthetic and performance. "Acrylic is very popular today, especially on the fingernails, due to its easy ability to mold into any length and shape. This allows more flexibility when it comes to being creative with the fashion on your nails." Correa notes that some people use acrylics on toenails as well. "On toenails, they are used to cover or hide nails that are usually cracked or broken."
What Causes Discoloration After Removing Acrylic Nails?
Nails can often be a barometer of general health, according to Green. "Discoloration of the natural nail can mean that there is an infection or nail fungus," she says. "If the nail continues to be yellow, it can be an indication of something more serious like vitamin or mineral deficiencies. In some cases, nails that remain yellow despite treatment can be a symptom of thyroid conditions, psoriasis, or diabetes." Read on for some of the most common reasons nails yellow after acrylics.
Fungal infection is the most common cause of yellowing, according to our experts. "Nail fungus, also known as onychomycosis, is caused by a type of fungus called dermatophyte," explains Green. "The species that most commonly cause nail fungus in the U.S. are Trichophyton rubrum, Trichophyton mentagrophytes, and Epidermophyton floccosum. Nail fungus infection starts as a white or yellow spot under the tip of the fingernail or toenail."
If a fungal infection developed while the acrylics were on, improper removal can make the situation worse. "Often, incorrectly removing the acrylic nail damages the natural nails underneath," says Green. "The removal process requires a lot of filing and the use of chemicals. If the nails are filed too far, the nail will become thin and weak. Also, poor quality removers can also irritate the skin around the nail." She notes that when removing or cleaning the nails, it's best to use a non-acetone polish remover. "Using traditional acetone polish remover can exacerbate the yellowing."
As the nail fungal infection progresses, yellow discoloration isn't the only symptom, according to Green. "It can cause discoloration of the nail as well as thickening and crumble at the edge of the nail. Other symptoms of nail fungus include distorted shape, foul smell, or brittle and crumbly texture."
Just as your skin can become dehydrated, so, too, can your nails. "Nail discoloration often happens because nails become dehydrated from all the chemicals," notes Correa. Green adds that sometimes the chemicals that make up the acrylics can be compromised, further increasing the chance of yellowing. "If an old monomer is mixed with a new monomer, even if it’s the same brand, it may reduce the integrity of the product as the chemicals continue to react in the containers over time," she says.
Nails can be stained by polish, according to Green, although this typically happens to natural nails. She adds that smoking can cause yellowing stains on or after acrylic nails. "Nicotine contributes to the yellowing of the nail, so it’s best to wear gloves while smoking, switch to a cigarette holder or vaporizer, or avoid smoking altogether."
Although Green notes there's no real "treatment for nail staining, as it often resolves on its own," there are a couple of things you can do to reduce the yellowing effect. Do note that if a fungal infection persists, you should seek a dermatologist's care.
Nail Soak Treatment
Both Correa and Green like nail soak treatments to reduce the appearance of yellowing. Green recommends soaking your nails in a hydrogen peroxide solution to reduce yellowing. "Soak your nails in diluted hydrogen peroxide. The solution should have a 1:3 ratio, consisting of one part peroxide and three parts water."
Following a nail soak, Correa recommends moisturizing. "Moisturizing is key when it comes to growing out healthy, beautiful nails. I suggest Gehwol's Nail Care ($25) to make them stronger." She also suggests a DIY remedy in the form of a homemade paste. "A great duo is extra virgin olive oil mixed with chopped garlic. Use on your nails once a week. The garlic contains selenium which promotes nail growth and strength and the vitamin E [in the oil] adds moisture."
Oral or Topical Anti-Fungal Medication
If yellowing of the nail is due to a fungal infection, the best course of treatment, according to our experts, is to consult with a dermatologist to make sure you're treating the specific fungus appropriately. "Any sign of fungal infections on the nail should be treated with antifungals, whether topical or oral. It’s highly recommended to see a dermatologist so the nails can be cultured to determine the exact type of fungus, and treatment [can be] adjusted based on what works best in fighting the specific fungus."
Take Breaks from Wearing Acrylics
Our experts suggest you take breaks from acrylics if you experience any discoloration. "First have the acrylics removed and don't apply nail polish (especially gel polish) for at least two to three weeks," says Correa. She recommends that during this period, you refrain from getting your nails wet. "Keep the affected nails covered when taking a shower or getting them wet in general. I suggest using Fungi Fix Hypoallergenic Sleeves ($25) to keep moisture out while the nail grows out."
Green recommends that after "three months of continuous wear of acrylic nails, [you] take a two- to three-month break from acrylics and give your natural nails a chance to strengthen."
When to See a Doctor
Seek out a dermatologist if, according to Green, "the yellowing of the nail persists after new nail growth, home remedies, and time." Signs of fungal infection are a good indication that a visit to the dermatologist is in order. Correa notes that if any crumbling occurs or if the nail(s) "seem to be getting more detached," it's time to consult a dermatologist.
The Final Takeaway
In addition to yellowing, acrylics can pose a couple of risks to your nail health. According to Green, "applying acrylic nails requires the surface of the nail to be rough." Technicians will file and buff the surface of the nail in order to get the desired texture, and then apply the adhesive. "Because acrylic nails are more rigid and able to form a stronger bond than that between the natural nail and nail bed," she says, "any trauma to the nail like a bump or a knock can lift the natural nail at the base."
In order to properly remove acrylics, a technician must once again file the nails. If nails become overly filed, Green notes they will become weak, brittle, and damaged. However, if you find you can't live without your acrylics, as long as you take breaks and frequent clean salons—and incorporate nail hygiene treatments into your routine—you can mitigate the yellowing of your nails that often accompanies acrylics.