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Are gel manicures safe? New study finds UV nail polish dryers damage DNA

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Shiny, durable, chip resistant and ideal for masking nail imperfections, gel manicures have become a regular part of many people’s beauty routines.

But gel nail polish needs UV light to set, raising concerns about the risk of skin cancer when hands, cuticles and nails are regularly exposed to UV rays, which can be more powerful than the sun.

And a new study, published in Nature Communications on Jan. 17, 2023, adds to those concerns because it found that radiation emitted by UV nail polish dryers can damage DNA and cause mutations in human cells.

LED bulbs still emit UV rays

Some salons use UV lamps to cure nail polish; others use LED bulbs. Women may think that LED devices ignore or minimize ultraviolet light, but that’s a huge misconception, says Dr. Chris Adigun, a Chapel Hill, NC, dermatologist who specializes in nail disorders and who contributed expert advice on the safety of gel manicures. for the American Academy of Dermatology.

“The gels are extremely popular nationally. They catapulted the salon industry into another revenue stratosphere,” Adigun told

“Gels, by definition, need UVA exposure to polymerize. So if there is no UVA, there is no gel manicure.”

Here’s the concern: UVA rays are the most mutagenic wavelength range of the UV spectrum, penetrating the skin deeper than UVB rays and playing a role in the development of skin cancer and premature skin aging such as wrinkles and wrinkles. sunspots.

To harden gel nail polish, people place their hand under a lamp that emits UVA rays for 30 seconds to a few minutes, depending on the type of device.

LED lamps have much shorter curing times, but that’s because the UVA rays they emit are much more intense than regular UV lamps or even the sun, Adigun said. They’re so powerful, she didn’t know how they compared to the UV exposure people get from being outdoors.

When profiled a 21-year-old woman who regularly got gel manicures and discovered she had melanoma on her nails, one dermatologist called the lamps “like tanning beds for your hands,” although Adigun said they are a little different, since tanning beds use both UVB and UVA rays.

Could a few minutes under a nail lamp increase the risk of skin cancer?

“Theoretically yes, because we know that exposure to UVA rays increases the risk of skin cancer, and you need to have UVA exposure to cure a gel manicure,” noted Adigun, adding that there is particular concern about exposure to manicures. in gel increasing with time. Some women go every two weeks.

“But have we really proven that link? Do we have this proven cause and effect? We do not.

The 2023 Nature Communications study offers a new cause for concern. Researchers at the University of California San Diego used three different cell lines – human and mouse – and exposed them to a UV nail polish dryer. Cell death, DNA damage and mutations were observed after both acute exposure (defined as two 20-minute sessions in a single day) and chronic exposure (defined as 20 minutes a day for three days) to the device, the researchers reported.

Maria Zhivagui, a postdoctoral fellow and first author of the study, says she no longer does gel manicures after seeing the results.

“I started using gel manicures periodically for several years,” she explains in a statement. “Once I saw the effect of radiation given off by the gel polish dryer on cell death and that it actually transforms cells even after just a 20-minute session, I was astonished. I found this very alarming and decided to stop using it.”

It is important to remember that this study does not provide direct evidence of an increased risk of cancer in humans, the authors wrote. These are experimental results using in vitro cell line models, which don’t perfectly emulate what happens in people in real life, so long-term studies are needed, they note.

Still, these findings, along with previous research, “strongly suggest that radiation emitted by UV nail polish dryers can cause cancer on the hands and that UV nail polish dryers, similar to tanning beds, may increase the risk of skin cancer.” of early onset.”, write the authors.


Another concern is that there is no standard for how long hands should be kept under the lamp. The devices are unregulated, and each proprietary gel polish has its own lamp and its own recommended cure time, Adigun said.

A salon may or may not follow recommendations or have the right type of lamp. There is also encouragement to keep your hands under the light longer.

“You can imagine that a salon customer is less likely to complain about a well-cured – potentially over-cured – gel polish manicure than they are about a poorly-cured manicure,” noted Adigun.

Research continues in this area, but because gel manicures are relatively new and it can take decades for skin cancer to develop, the full picture may not be clear for a while.

Prolonged exposure to UV nail lamps may have the potential to increase the risk of cancer and UV-induced skin aging, according to a 2013 study.

A 2014 paper warned that longer exposure times lead to greater potential for skin damage, but concluded that the risk of developing cancer was small.


Another article profiled two women who had regular exposure to ultraviolet light and developed squamous cell carcinoma on their fingers and hands.

As for nail melanoma, UV exposure is not believed to be a major risk factor as the nail matrix is ​​under the skin. But a 2017 study found that some nail melanomas contained mutations with a UV signature, surprising experts in the field.

“What this says is that we simply don’t know and cannot conclude with certainty that nail melanoma has nothing to do with UV exposure,” said Adigun.

How to protect yourself:

Adigun emphasized that she is not “anti-gel” and that you can still get a gel manicure as long as you protect your skin.

The best way is to cover your hands and fingers with clothing that has a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating, whether it’s a glove with the ends cut off, a shirt or a scarf, she said. TODAY style editor Bobbie Thomas demonstrated specially designed gloves for this purpose that you can buy.

The American Academy of Dermatology also recommends applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to your hands before getting a gel manicure. Adigun still preferred a physical covering over sunscreen because it’s unclear how effective the sunscreen is at blocking the intense UVA rays emitted by some of the lamps.

Be aware that there are many medications that can increase your sensitivity to ultraviolet light, such as doxycycline, an oral antibiotic. People taking these medications should be extra careful to protect their skin during a gel manicure to avoid blistering or burning their hands.

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