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Are Gel Manicures Safe?

Tuesday, February 21, 2023 3:57 PM
Tags: dermatology

Spring Break is just around the corner but you may want to think twice before heading to the salon for a  manicure or pedicure.

A new study says ultraviolet (UV) lamps used to dry and cure gel nail polish can lead to cancer-causing mutations in human cells.

Gel manicures and UV lights are common fixtures in nail salons. An estimated 3 million Americans visit nail salons each day but no one has actually studied these devices and how they affect human cells at the molecular and cellular levels until now.

For gel manicures, the drying devices are used to solidify and cure the polish. Clients slide their hand underneath the covered, table-top light.

The researchers found that one 20-minute session led to between 20 and 30 percent cell death while three consecutive 20-minute exposures caused between 65 and 70 percent of the exposed cells to die, according the study, which was published Jan. 17 in Nature Communications.

Close-up of manicurist covering nails of client with lights nail polish. Businesswoman preparing to meeting with colleagues. Beauty salon and personal care conceptExposure to the UV light also can damage DNA and cause mutations in human cells, potentially increasing the risk of skin cancer, according to the University of California San Diego.

We asked NorthShore dermatologist Stephanie Mehlis, MD, for insight into this new study and ways to keep our hands and nails healthy.

What can people do for protection before putting their hands under salon lights?

  • Consider taking breaks from gel manicures for a couple weeks or more. Have a dermatologist look at your hands and nail beds for any worrisome signs.
  • Wear sunscreen. Before getting a gel manicure, apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to your hands to prevent skin cancer and premature skin aging. This will help protect your skin from the ultraviolet radiation used to seal gel nail polish to the nail.
  • Another option is to put on dark, opaque gloves with the fingertips snipped off before your nail polish is applied.

How much radiation from these ultraviolet lights is needed to cause enough damage to create a high risk for skin cancer?

More research is needed but we know that radiation from ultraviolet light causes damage to skin cells, causing premature aging and increases the risk for skin cancer.

Are these dryers stronger and more damaging than the sun?

You should think about the drying devices like mini tanning beds.  Although they are “less strong” than the sun, more studies are needed to accurately find if that amount of exposure translates into a cancer risk in the real world.  We already know that both sunlight and tanning beds have a cumulative risk of skin cancer based on the frequency and amount of exposure.