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Are gel UV nail lights safe? Your manicure could be putting you at risk of skin cancer

Does the UV light for nails cause cancer? We explore the connection between UV nail lamps and skin cancer or melanoma.
MoleMap Team
November 17, 2023
8 minutes

For some, there’s noth­ing quite like the feel­ing of a fresh man­i­cure. Shel­lac and gel nails have become extreme­ly pop­u­lar in recent years. And it’s not uncom­mon for this treat­ment to appear in many peo­ples’ month­ly beau­ty régime. But did you know it could come with a poten­tial skin can­cer risk?

Man­i­cures with shel­lac or gel nails use ultra­vi­o­let (UV) light to dry the pol­ished nails. The issue here is that UV nail dry­ers expose peo­ple to UVA radi­a­tion — that is, the same harm­ful rays emit­ted by the sun, which have been linked to an increased risk of skin cancer.

Researchers have long sus­pect­ed that UV nail lamps (when used fre­quent­ly) may be asso­ci­at­ed with a high­er risk of devel­op­ing skin can­cer. But while there is evi­dence to show the lev­el of risk of UVA radi­a­tion from the sun or sources like tan­ning beds, the research is still lim­it­ed on the risk caused by UV lamps used in nail salons.

So, is your month­ly man­i­cure doing you more harm than good? Let’s explore…

gel UV nail lights

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Does the UV light for nails cause cancer?

When you con­sid­er the link between UV dam­age and skin can­cer, it’s easy to see why there is con­cern sur­round­ing the use of UV lights to dry nails dur­ing manicures.

How­ev­er, exist­ing stud­ies have not yet found a direct link between cas­es of skin can­cer and UV nail lamps. A 2020 study exam­ined the instances of two women who devel­oped melanoma on their hands from 2007 to 2016 after years of gel man­i­cures. But ulti­mate­ly, the researchers con­clud­ed that the evi­dence was too lim­it­ed to deter­mine whether the expo­sure to UV light used dur­ing gel man­i­cures increas­es the risk of skin can­cer on the nails and hands.

gel UV nail lights

So, where does this leave us when it comes to the ques­tion of are uv nail lamps safe?

We do know one thing to be true: fre­quent expo­sure to UV radi­a­tion does increase your risk of devel­op­ing skin can­cer. In a 2016 press release from the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Der­ma­tol­ogy, board-cer­ti­­fied der­ma­tol­o­gist Chris G. Adi­gun explained,​“The UV dose that you receive dur­ing a gel man­i­cure is brief, but it’s intense… Over time, this intense expo­sure can add up to cause skin damage.”

Research also indi­cates that the UV rays emit­ted by those lamps are four times stronger than the sun’s UV rays.

Still, researchers at Har­vard Med­ical School sug­gest that the risk dur­ing a man­i­cure may be min­i­mal. They not­ed that the lev­el of UVA expo­sure from a gel man­i­cure every two weeks isn’t like­ly to be high enough to cause a sig­nif­i­cant increase in skin can­cer risk, cit­ing a 2014 study in JAMA Der­ma­tol­ogy.

The Skin Can­cer Foun­da­tion has also not­ed that while UVA rays have been linked to both pre­ma­ture skin aging and skin can­cer, ​“even the most intense of these devices presents only a mod­er­ate UV risk — a far low­er risk than that pre­sent­ed by UV tan­ning devices.”

Recent research sug­gests UV nail dry­ers may dam­age DNA

More recent­ly, NBC News report­ed on a study pub­lished in Jan­u­ary 2023 which found that radi­a­tion from UV nail lamps can dam­age DNA and cause muta­tions in human cells. This, in turn, is linked to a risk of cancer.

In the study, the researchers exposed cells tak­en from humans and mice to UV light from nail dry­ers. They found that after one 20-minute ses­sion, 20 – 30% of the cells had died, and after three con­sec­u­tive 20-minute ses­sions, 65 – 70% of the cells had died.

But before researchers can make any defin­i­tive con­clu­sions about the can­cer risk of UV nail dry­ers, they will need to study the long-term effects on actu­al humans. And giv­en the slow pace of research, this process could take over a decade.

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

gel UV nail lights

Der­ma­tol­o­gists weigh in: Can gel nails cause cancer?

Inter­est­ing­ly, the der­ma­tol­o­gists inter­viewed for the NBC News report said they avoid man­i­cures that involve UV nail dry­ers. Dr Loret­ta Davis, the chair of the der­ma­tol­ogy depart­ment at Augus­ta Uni­ver­si­ty in Geor­gia, not­ed that she would be par­tic­u­lar­ly wor­ried about the aging effects of UVA.

“You’re not going to find a der­ma­tol­o­gist who doesn’t say that UVA is aging us and increas­ing our risk of skin can­cer, so any­thing that’s pur­pose­ly done with that type of device is going to con­tribute,” said Davis.

The dan­ger­ous effects of UV radi­a­tion accu­mu­late over time. And in her own research, Davis sug­gests that the more fre­quent­ly peo­ple are exposed to UV nail lamps, the high­er their risk of UV damage.

More stud­ies are need­ed to deter­mine whether there’s a safe lev­el of UVA expo­sure from UV nail lamps and exact­ly how much expo­sure could become unsafe. But giv­en there’s still so much we don’t know about expo­sure to UV radi­a­tion from gel man­i­cures, some peo­ple may decide the poten­tial skin can­cer risk isn’t worth the gamble.

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How can you pro­tect your­self from UV dam­age and still enjoy your month­ly manicure?

While the jury is still out on the exact skin can­cer risk of using UV nail dry­ers, the Skin Can­cer Foun­da­tion rec­om­mends pro­tect­ing your hands when­ev­er they’re exposed to harm­ful UV rays.

When using a UV nail light, you can pro­tect your­self by:

  • Apply­ing a water­proof, broad spec­trum (UVA/UVB) SPF 50+ sun­screen to your hands 20 min­utes pri­or to UV light exposure
  • Wear­ing fin­ger­less gloves to help reduce your UV exposure

But keep in mind, these pre­cau­tions do not pro­tect you against sub­un­gual melanoma — a rare but aggres­sive form of skin can­cer that devel­ops under the nail.

Those who have fair skin, are old­er or take med­ica­tions that make them sen­si­tive to light should also be extra care­ful and per­haps skip the use of UV nail lamps altogether.

If you’re get­ting reg­u­lar man­i­cures, the safest approach is to avoid UV nail dry­ing lamps and use an air blow­er or allow your nails to air-dry instead. You may also want to switch to oth­er types of man­i­cures like SNS that don’t involve UV expo­sure.

gel UV nail lights

How com­mon is nail melanoma and skin cancer?

There are dif­fer­ent types of melanoma and skin can­cer that devel­op on the hands and nails. Some are seen on the top of the fin­ger­nail, while oth­ers (like sub­un­gual melanoma) devel­op under­neath the nail.

The nails are one of the more unusu­al places to find skin can­cer and the occur­rence of nail melanoma is rel­a­tive­ly rare. Accord­ing to the Jour­nal of Foot and Ankle Research, only 1.4% of all diag­nosed melanomas occur on the fin­ger or toe nails. Still, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t watch out for dan­ger signs.

What does nail melanoma look like?

Can­cer of the nails may be rare but it does hap­pen. Below are some of the red flags of nail cancer:

  • A dark brown or black streak across the nail
  • Nail sep­a­rat­ing (lift­ing from the nail bed)
  • Cracked split or brit­tle nails
  • The dark­en­ing of the skin sur­round­ing the nail
  • Bleed­ing or signs of infec­tion on or around the nail
  • Nod­ules under­neath the nail
  • Bruis­es on the nail that won’t heal
  • Nail sen­si­tiv­i­ty

If you get shel­lac or gel man­i­cures reg­u­lar­ly, it’s rec­om­mend­ed that you give your nails a break every few weeks. Not only does this help to reduce the dam­age to your nail beds, but it will also allow you to mon­i­tor your nails for any unusu­al spots or changes.

gel UV nail lights

Know your skin can­cer risk — and get checked often

Wor­ried about your UV expo­sure from reg­u­lar man­i­cures? Take our Risk Quiz for a quick and easy assess­ment of your per­son­al skin can­cer risk.

As is the case with any form of skin can­cer, ear­ly detec­tion is key to avoid­ing the dev­as­tat­ing impact of melanoma. Although nail melanoma and oth­er skin can­cers of the hand are rare, it’s impor­tant that you get your skin check reg­u­lar­ly by a pro­fes­sion­al.

And when you do have a mole check, make sure you are exam­ined thor­ough­ly from head to toe, includ­ing your hands, fin­gers and nails — like in our Full Body MoleMap service.

MoleMap Team

At MoleMap we check, detect and treat skin cancer. Find out how you can protect your skin at your nearest MoleMap skin cancer clinic.

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