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