For more than a decade, researchers have suspected that the UV nail dryers used for gel manicures might be associated with a higher risk of skin cancer when used routinely. The dryers expose people to ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which is known to cause skin cancer from other sources such as sun exposure and tanning beds.
A study published last week provides new evidence: It found that radiation from UV nail dryers can damage DNA and cause permanent mutations in human cells – which in turn is linked to cancer risk.
Such cellular damage “is just one step on the road to cancer,” said Dr. Julia Curtis, an assistant professor at the University of Utah’s department of dermatology, who was not involved in the new research.
However, the study didn’t look at real people: the researchers exposed human and mouse cells to UV light from nail dryers. They observed that after 20 minutes, 20% to 30% of the cells had died. After three consecutive 20-minute sessions, 65% to 70% of the cells had died.
Previous studies have linked only a few cases of skin cancer to gel manicures. A 2020 analysis identified two women in the United States who developed melanoma on the back of their hands from 2007 to 2016. Both had been getting gel manicures for years. Overall, however, the researchers found that this type of manicure — which involves applying a gel polish that’s then left to cure under UV lamps — had little to no association with cancer.
“At this point, I would recommend or advise people to just weigh the risk,” said one of the authors of the new study, Maria Zhivagui, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “You see what that does. There is damage at the DNA level. We don’t know if it’s carcinogenic.”
Scientists need to study the effects of UV nail dryers on humans before they can make any firm conclusions about cancer risk, she added. 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, I would say, so establishing cause and effect can be very difficult,” Curtis said.
Still, Curtis and Zhivagui said they never get manicures that require UV nail dryers in their own lives.
“You won’t find a dermatologist who doesn’t say that UVA ages us and increases our risk of skin cancer,” said Dr. Loretta Davis, chair of the department of dermatology at Augusta University in Georgia. “Anything intentionally done with this type of device will help.”
Davis said she doesn’t get manicures but would be concerned about the aging effects of UVA exposure if she did.
The harmful effects of UV rays accumulate over time, and Davis’ own research found that the more people get manicures with UV nail lamps, the greater their risk of damage may be.
Using a UV nail dryer every two weeks is “probably too much,” she said.
“If you’re going to do that before a wedding and want to feel special, sure,” Davis added. “But doing it routinely, no, I wouldn’t.”
Studies have yet to determine if there is a safe level of UVA exposure associated with manicures, or exactly how much may pose a health risk.
Zhivagui’s previous research found 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 at least 50 SPF before a nail appointment could provide some protection.
They also said people who are older, have lighter skin or are taking medications that make them more sensitive to light, such as certain blood pressure medications, should exercise more caution.
Davis said some people might decide that exposure to UV rays from gel manicures isn’t worth the risk, given how much we don’t know yet.
“People don’t want to find out five years later that they did something risky and could have taken precautions to protect their hands,” she said.