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

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

A study published last week provides new evidence: It found that radiation emitted from UV nail dryers can damage DNA and cause permanent mutations in human cells, which is linked to an increased risk of cancer.

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

But the study didn’t look at real humans: The researchers exposed human and mouse-derived cells to UV light from nail dryers. After 20 minutes, they observed that between 20 and 30% of the cells had died. After three consecutive 20-minute sessions, 65% to 70% of the cells were dead.

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Previous studies have only linked a few instances of skin cancer to gel manicures. A 2020 analysis identified two women in the US who developed melanoma on the back of their hands from 2007 to 2016. Both had gel manicures for years. Overall, however, the researchers determined that this type of manicure, which involves applying a gel polish that must then be fixed under UV lamps, has little or no association with cancer.

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

He added that scientists will need to study the effects of UV nail dryers on real people before they can come to firm 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 really become popular until the 2000s, so establishing this cause and effect can be very difficult,” Curtis said.

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Still, Curtis and Zhivagui said they had never had manicures that required UV nail dryers in their lives.

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

Davis said she did not get a manicure, but if she did, she would be worried about the aging effects of UVA radiation.

The harmful effects of UV rays accumulate over time, and Davis’s own research suggested that the more often people get manicured with UV nail lamps, the higher their risk of damage may be.

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 to do this routinely, no, I wouldn’t do that.”

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

Zhivagui’s previous research suggested that setting acrylic nails with UV light every three weeks for a year could 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 with an SPF of at least 50 before the nail appointment may offer some protection.

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

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

“People don’t want to find out five years later that they did something risky and they could have taken action to protect their hands,” he said.


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