Are Gel Nails Safe or Can the UV Light Cause Skin Cancer?

Are Gel Nails Safe or Can the UV Light Cause Skin Cancer?

When you want your nail polish to stay put for weeks, getting a gel manicure is usually a solid option. Gel polish is typically “cured” by ultraviolet (UV) light, which helps the formula quickly dry and harden into a durable layer that doesn’t chip nearly as easily as traditional polish.1 But with all the recent talk about UV light potentially causing skin cancer, is that long-lasting mani even worth it? 

A study published earlier this year in the journal Nature Communications showed that radiation from the UV light commonly used in nail curing lamps could significantly damage skin—findings that have since been widely cited in some alarming headlines.2 The researchers exposed isolated human skin cells and animal cells to UV light from nail polish dryers and found that after just 20 minutes, 20 to 30% of the cells died; three 20-minute sessions resulted in 60 to 70% cell death. The UV exposure also caused DNA damage and mutations—changes that can potentially lead to skin cancer, according to the new research. 

Experts have long been concerned that exposure to certain lights, including blue light from digital devices, can damage our skin and overall health. However, these fresh findings raise a lot of questions when it comes to chronic UV exposure to nail-curing lamps.3 4  

But should you be worried about developing skin cancer if you regularly get gel manicures? Below, experts break down everything you should know.   

First, how can UV light lead to skin cancer?

UV light damages DNA, which can lead to mutations that play a key role in the development of different types of skin cancer, according to Anthony M. Rossi, MD, an assistant attending physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and associate professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Dr. Rossi tells SELF that both UVA and UVB rays (the two types of UV radiation from the sun that reach the earth’s surface) are the main drivers of the two most common forms of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).6 7

Emanuela Taioli, MD, the director of the Institute for Translational Epidemiology at the  Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, tells SELF that when UV light damages DNA in skin cells, the body’s repair mechanisms kick in and attempt to repair that damage before the cells replicate. However, when the damage is severe, this repair system might fail, Dr. Taioli says, leading to DNA mutations that can initiate the formation of skin cancer.5

And the sun isn’t the only source of UV exposure. Dr. Taioli lists tanning beds, certain types of lasers, mercury vapor lighting (which are often used in stadiums and school gyms), as well as some halogen, fluorescent, and incandescent lights as potential sources of damaging UV radiation. Dr. Rossi says that the amount of UV light that causes sunburns and skin mutations that can lead to skin cancer is hard to quantify, so exactly how much exposure is harmful can vary from person to person.

How do nail curing lamps use UV light? 

Most polish curing devices are labeled as either “UV” or “LED,” but it’s a common misconception that LED light does not emit any UV light, Angela Kim, DO, a board-certified dermatologist in Yurba, California, and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, tells SELF. It does, just a very small amount.8 So even if you use a nail lamp that’s advertised as using LED light only, your skin and nails are probably still getting exposed to some UV radiation. 

Regardless of the type of lightbulbs they use, the way these gel mani lamps work is fairly simple. In order for the polish to dry and harden, you put your hands under a lamp with bulbs that mainly emit UVA light (the type that’s largely responsible for signs of aging like hyperpigmentation and wrinkles, as well as, again, some skin cancers). Dr. Kim says that UVA wavelengths will then activate particles in the gel polish to make it form into a hard, plastic-like substance.9 Different gel polish brands are designed to harden via different wavelengths, she says, which is why some brands sell their own lamps for the curing process. The nail lamps found at the nail salon likely have a wider range of UVA wavelengths in order to cure different gel brands, she adds. 

So can gel manicures cause skin cancer? 

While gel manicures can theoretically increase the risk of developing skin cancer via UV light exposure, all the experts SELF spoke with agree that there aren’t enough studies yet to definitively make a cause-and-effect connection. Although it’s well-known and documented that ultraviolet light from the sun can lead to skin cancer, “we don’t know a lot about the effects of exposure to gel manicure lamps, specifically,” explains Dr. Taioli.10 “The new study [in Nature] was conducted in experimental animals and on isolated human skin cells—a situation that is different from what happens in real life to people, where the body’s repair mechanisms are in effect.” “While this research shows that UV exposure does affect human cells and cause mutations, the study was not done in vivo (on human beings), so we need further studies to know at what dose and frequency would someone need to be exposed to gel manicure lamps for it to be detrimental,” Dr. Rossi adds. 

What’s more, the other limited research we do have doesn’t definitively prove that gel manicures can cause skin cancer. Dr. Kim points to one study conducted in 2009, a case review of two women who developed skin cancers on their hands. The participants did have long-term exposure to UV nail lamps, but the researchers concluded that this was only a possible risk factor.11 Another example Dr. Kim offers: It’s an anecdotal case study published in 2019, in which a woman who consistently got gel manicures and used tanning beds for 18 years developed skin cancer on her hands and feet. The paper’s authors determined that her regular use of tanning beds may have created an increased risk of skin cancers and “exacerbated the effects of the nail lamp alone.”12 

In another study published in 2012, researchers used a mathematical model to estimate how many people would need to be exposed to UV nail lamps for one of them to develop squamous cell carcinoma, Dr. Kim says. They concluded that tens or hundreds of thousands of folks would have to get a gel manicure regularly (once every three weeks for 20 years) for one of them to get skin cancer by the time they turn 80.13 “The chances of getting skin cancer from a single gel manicure are probably extremely low, considering that the time of exposure is only a few minutes,” Dr. Taioli says. 

“It seems that, for now, getting gel manicures does not significantly increase the risk of developing skin cancers,” Dr. Kim adds. “However, with the recent findings that UV nail lamps can cause DNA damage and mutation of skin cells, I would recommend taking precautions of UV protection.” Since the degree of UV damage (and, ultimately, the risk of developing skin cancers) largely depends on how long and how frequently you’ve been exposed to all forms of UV light, whether you use UV protection (clothing or sunscreen), and how strong the UV rays are, certain safety measures can mitigate any potential risk. 14 

How to protect your skin from the UV light in nail lamps

Even if the chances of developing cancer from a nail lamp are low, it’s always a good idea to protect your skin from UV light exposure. Dr. Kim suggests applying a nickel-size amount of broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher on each of your hands before getting your nails done. Doing this alone, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, can reduce your chances of squamous cell carcinoma by 40% and melanoma by 50%. 15

You can also wear gloves (Dr. Kim recommends colored cotton gloves, as those are known to absorb UV light) with the fingertips cut off—or buy a pair of fingerless UV gloves made specifically for nail lamps (like this set from MelodySusie, $12)—to cover a majority of your skin while your gel nail polish is curing under the lamp.16

Arguably the easiest option is to limit the number of times you get a gel manicure; the less frequently you get them, the less exposure to UV light, Dr. Kim, who also suggests taking gel manicure breaks (for example, a month or two off a few times a year), says. As an alternative, you can also try a long-lasting, gel-like polish formula at home that doesn’t require curing, like Sally Hansen Miracle Gel ($8, Target) or Essie Gel Couture ($13, Amazon).

What are some potential signs of skin cancer on your hands?

Regardless of how often you put your hands under a nail lamp—and how low the risk of developing skin cancer is as a result—it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of skin cancer. Dr. Taioli says these can include a brand new spot on the skin; a change in the size, shape, and color of a preexisting spot; a sore that never heals; or a spot that is itchy, tender, or causes pain. Dr. Kim adds that UV-induced skin cancers can look like a rough crusty spot or pimple-like growth that doesn’t go away or keeps recurring. Dr. Rossi also says to look out for skin cancer in your nails, as that oftentimes goes undiagnosed, per the American Academy of Dermatology. Some signs to be aware of include new black or red streaks on the nail or a bump that grows on or next to the nail bed. 

If you notice any of these signs on your hands (or anywhere else on your body), you should make an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist as soon as possible so they can perform a skin exam and potentially conduct a biopsy of the area to determine whether the cells are cancerous. (If you don’t have access to a derm right away, check in with a primary care doctor, who may help speed things along by giving you a referral.)

“If the biopsy confirms skin cancer, your dermatologist will help you create a treatment plan,” Dr. Kim says. “Depending on the type of skin cancer, that plan may include topical medication, a scraping and burning method called electrodesiccation, curettage (where doctors scrape the skin tumor off and use an electric needle to kill the remaining cancer cells), or surgery to remove the cancer.” 

The bottom line on gel nails and cancer

As far as experts know from the current (limited) research, the risk of developing skin cancer from UV nail lights is low. Still, the probability goes up with cumulative use, and until we have more studies to suggest gel nail lamps don’t increase skin cancer risk, it’s a smart move to limit your exposure—and when you do go in to see your nail artist, be sure to wear sunscreen and, if you want to be supersafe, gloves for added protection. You don’t necessarily need to cancel all your gel mani appointments just yet—but spacing them out and taking extra steps to shield your skin certainly won’t hurt. 

Sources:

  1.  Dermatology Online Journal, Gel Manicures and Ultraviolet A Light: A Call for Patient Education
  2. Nature Communications, DNA Damage and Somatic Mutations in Mammalian Cells After Irradiation With a Nail Polish Dryer
  3. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Blue Light Protection, Part I-Effects of Blue Light on the Skin
  4. Journal of Nucleic Acids, Molecular Mechanisms of Ultraviolet Radiation-Induced DNA Damage and Repair
  5. Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research, Effects on DNA Damage and/or Repair Processes as Biological Mechanisms Linking Psychological Stress to Cancer Risk
  6. Frontiers in Public Health, Ultraviolet Radiation and Basal Cell Carcinoma: An Environmental Perspective
  7. The British Journal of Dermatology, UV-Induced Squamous Cell Carcinoma—a Role for Anti-apoptotic Signaling Pathways
  8. Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia, Ultraviolet Radiation Emitted by Lamps, TVs, Tablets, and Computers: Are there Risks for the Population?
  9. Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences, Nail Dryer Devices: A Measured Spectral Irradiance and Labeling Review
  10. Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, Sunlight and Skin Cancer 
  11. Archives of Dermatology, Occurrence of Nonmelanoma Skin Cancers on the Hands After UV Nail Light Exposure
  12. Case Reports in Dermatology, Multiple Dorsal Hand Actinic Keratoses and Squamous Cell Carcinomas: A Unique Presentation following Extensive UV Nail Lamp Use
  13. British Journal of Dermatology, The Risk of Squamous Cell Carcinoma in Women from Exposure to UVA Lamps Used in Cosmetic Nail Treatment
  14. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, UV Radiation and the Skin 
  15. Canadian Medical Association Journal, The Efficacy and Safety of Sunscreen Use for the Prevention of Skin Cancer
  16. BMC Dermatology, An Evaluation of UV Protection Imparted by Cotton Fabrics Dyed With Natural Colorants

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