Dermatologists say they avoid gel manicures as study hints at risks of UV nail dryers

For more than a decade, researchers have suspected that UV nail dryers used for gel manicures may be linked to an increased risk of skin cancer if used regularly. Dryers expose people to ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which is known to cause skin cancer from other sources, such as sun exposure and tanning beds.

A study published last week offers new evidence: it found that radiation from UV nail dryers can damage DNA and cause permanent mutations in human cells – linked to cancer risk.

Such cell damage is “just one step on the road to cancer,” said Dr. Julia Curtis, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Utah who was not involved in the new research.

However, the study didn’t look at real people: The researchers exposed cells taken from humans and mice to the UV rays of nail dryers. They observed that 20% to 30% of the cells had died after 20 minutes. After three consecutive 20-minute sessions, 65% to 70% of the cells had died.

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Previous studies have linked only a few cases of skin cancer to gel manicures. A 2020 analysis identified two women in the United States who developed melanoma on the back of their hands from 2007 to 2016. Both have had gel manicures for years. Overall, however, the researchers concluded that the type of manicure—which involves applying gel polish that must be set under UV lamps—is not associated with cancer.

“At this point, I would recommend or advise people to weigh the risk,” said postdoctoral researcher Maria Zhivagui of the University of California, San Diego, one of the authors of the new study. “Understand what this is doing. There is damage at the DNA level. We don’t know if this is carcinogenic.”

She added that scientists would need to study the effects of UV nail dryers in real people before drawing definitive conclusions about cancer risk. Both Zhivagui and Curtis said the process could take another 10 years, given the slow pace of research.

“UV nail lamps didn’t become popular until around the 2000s, I would say, and it can be very difficult to make that cause and effect,” Curtis said.

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Still, Curtis and Zhivagui said that in their own lives, they would never get manicures that require UV nail dryers.

“You won’t find a dermatologist who doesn’t say that UVA ages us and increases our risk of skin cancer,” said Dr. Loretta Davis, chair of the dermatology department at Augusta University in Georgia. “So anything done intentionally with that type of device will contribute.”

Davis said she doesn’t get manicures but is concerned about the aging effects of UVA radiation.

The harmful effects of UV rays add up over time, and Davis’ own research has suggested that the more often people get manicures with UV nail lamps, the greater their risk of damage.

Using a UV nail dryer every week is “probably too much,” she said.

“If you’re going to do this before a wedding and you want to feel special, sure,” Davis added. “But make it a habit, no, I don’t.”

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Studies have yet to determine whether there is a safe level of UVA exposure in the context of manicures or how much may pose a health risk.

Zhivagui’s previous research has suggested that exposing acrylic nails to UV light every three weeks once a year can produce more intense UVA radiation than sunlight during that time.

The three dermatologists agreed that wearing fingerless gloves when using a UV nail dryer and applying a waterproof broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least 50 SPF before the nail appointment offers some protection.

They also said that people who are older, fair-skinned, or taking medications that make them more sensitive to light, such as certain blood pressure medications, should be more careful.

Davis said that some people may decide that exposure to UV radiation from gel manicures isn’t worth the gamble, given how much we still don’t know.

“People don’t want to find out five years later that they were doing something risky and they could have taken precautions to protect their hands,” she said.

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