A big question surrounding gel manicures is if the UV nail lamp used to cure the polish is safe for the skin. This topic has long been debated, with numerous studies over the last few decades potentially linking the lamps to a higher risk of skin cancer, but a new development has sparked a renewed interest in the topic.
On Jan. 17, Nature Communications published a report that analyzed skin cells under two different UV exposure conditions. It found that one 20-minute session of exposure to a UV nail dryer resulted in "20–30 percent cell death, while three consecutive 20-minute exposures caused between 65 percent and 70 percent cell death."
This type of cell death is typically seen in skin cancer, which has alarmed many people. If you frequent the nail salon for gel pedicures and manicures, you've probably seen someone next to you — or maybe it is you — slather SPF on the backs of their hands or even wear UV nail gloves to keep their hands protected. We know that wearing sunscreen reduces your risk of skin cancer from UVA/UVB exposure, so in theory, this precaution should help lower your risk of any cellular mutation that may otherwise occur under the lamp. But you might find yourself wondering, is this really necessary? How dangerous are UV nail lamps?
Ahead, we tapped a professional nail artist and a dermatologist to answer that question.
Are UV Nail Lamps Safe For Skin?
The aforementioned study suggests that UV nail lamps cause a similar cell mutation to that of skin cancer, and Christina Chung, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in Philadelphia, isn't entirely surprised but also points out that the findings aren't conclusive.
"The gel-nail-polish dryers emit UV light, so I would expect there to be some level of cellular damage sustained by skin cells," Dr. Chung tells POPSUGAR. However, this study isn't perfect. "It's important to recognize this is an 'in vitro' study, which means it was performed outside a living organism. Results that happen in a test tube or a petri dish don't necessarily correlate to real life in human beings."
"May" is another keyword to pay attention to in this study. "You'll read everywhere that the results of this study demonstrate that nail lamps 'may' result in skin cancer," Dr. Chung says. "But they also may not, which is why most medical professionals will agree chronic use of nail lamps damages your skin cells, but most will also stop short of saying they actually cause cancer." More long-term research needs to be done to truly determine if there's a correlation.
Michelle Saunders, celebrity manicurist and owner of Saunders & James in Oakland, CA, points out that even frequent nail-salon patrons aren't exposing themselves for very long. "The amount of time that a client is in our gel lamps, six minutes total, two times a month, is not dangerous," in her opinion. "In fact, the lamps that modern salons currently have use a combination of a low UV spectrum and LED to lessen the emission of harmful rays."
A 2010 report published by Doug Schoon, M.S. chemistry and chief scientific advisor for CND, in conjunction with two other leading scientists in the nail industry, actually found that UV nail lamps don't stack up to natural sunlight. Specifically, the UV-B output of the tested UV lamps was "equal to what they could expect from spending an extra 17 to 26 seconds in sunlight each day of the two weeks between nail salon appointments." Additionally, the UVA output was "equivalent to spending an extra 1.5 to 2.7 minutes in sunlight each day between salon visits, depending on the type of UV nail lamp used."
"Many clients have asked me throughout the years if our gel lamps will cause any harm to their hands and I have always said, 'Your hands get more negative UV exposure walking outside to and from the salon,'" Saunders says.
How to Protect Your Hands at the Nail Salon
Still, if you find the potential increased risk of skin damage from UV nail lamps worrisome, you have options, and they don't include giving up your gel manicures altogether. Dr. Chung's first piece of advice: don't panic — none of this is saying you're destined to develop skin cancer if you love gel manicures.
"Make sure you apply sunscreen prior to going to the nail salon and wear fingerless gloves as a physical barrier to the UV light," she says. "You could also consider taking polypodium leucotomos prior to getting your manicure." That's an oral medication that has been found to help prevent cellular damage associated with UV exposure." But that said, in a perfect world, you should also be applying sunscreen to your hands — and face, for that matter — every day, manicure or not.