Can Gel Manicures cause Skin Cancer?
Do Gel Manicures Increase the Risk of Skin Cancer?
Gel manicures quickly became the new nail care sensation. Finally, a polish that doesn’t chip or become dull; that masks imperfections, such as ridges, indentations or pitting; that dries quickly and actually strengthens the nails. Depending on the salon and region in which you live, gel manicures typically cost $5 to $15 more than a traditional manicure. Since you need a manicure less frequently, you may break even.
Certainly, there are ingredients in gel polish that grasp the nail more securely and make it more flexible and less likely to chip. But the primary element in this “miracle” manicure is that the polish is “cured” or hardened under a UV or LED lamp. And therein lies the concern. We have been warned, and strongly so, about the UV rays used in tanning beds putting us at risk for skin cancer. Granted, the UV exposure from manicures is far lower than from tanning beds, but are we risking skin cancer on our hands, cuticles and nails by being exposed to UV rays more powerful than the sun?
Like any manicure, the gel polish is applied in layers: base coat, color, top coat. Each layer must be cured, and your hands are under the UV light from 30 seconds to a couple minutes, depending on the intensity of the lamp, for each coat.
Concerns About Gel Manicures and Skin Cancer
- There is a concern about a cumulative effect. UV rays increase the risk of skin cancer. Gel manicures require exposure to UV rays. Some women have a gel manicure every two weeks. Does that add up to gel manicures causing skin cancer? None that has as yet been proven.
- There is a concern about the lack of regulation and standardization. Neither the process of a gel manicure nor the lamps are regulated. There is no standard for how long the hands should be under the lamp nor how intense the light should be. Each polish and each lamp comes with its own recommended curing time.
- There is a concern about the lack of oversight. There is no way to determine if a salon is following the recommendations. Longer exposure increases the potential for skin cancer, but it also results in a harder finish. Therefore, even if clients know their hands have been under the light unnecessarily long, they are not likely to complain—their manicure will last even longer.
Scientific Studies on Gel Manicures and Skin Cancer
There have been many studies. Here are a few examples.
- Researchers selected 17 salons at random. The nail lamps tested showed that repeated use, from 8 to 14 times over a two-year to three-and-a-half year period, could expose clients to radiation levels capable of producing DNA damage to the skin.
- Other researchers found that, even though UV lights used in manicures emit different amounts of radiation, the low-energy exposure means it would require multiple visits to reach the threshold for potential DNA damage.
- Another study found that multiple manicures possibly results in DNA damage. However, they concluded that the skin cancer risk was low.
- Tests showed that nail lamps are 11 to 46 times less risky for skin cancer than direct sunlight. The conclusion was that the overall threat of cancer was trivial.
- Other tests determined that the limited UV exposure during a gel manicure is unlikely to increase the risk of skin cancer significantly.
More studies are needed. Gel manicures have not been around long enough to know for certain how high a risk they are for skin cancer. It can take decades for skin cancer to develop from UV light. The more the scientists learn, the closer they will get to the answer.
Protection During Gel Manicures
Why take a chance, particularly if you have had skin cancer or have a family history of it.
- Cover your hands with gloves that expose only your nails. There are special gloves for manicures- they contain a special polymer with titanium dioxide, an effective sunscreen. Or you can cut the tips off of gloves you have. Use gloves that are dark and opaque. Do not use white cotton that have little protection.
- Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to your hands before the manicure and reapply during it as necessary. Even water-resistant sunscreens are likely to be washed off if the manicurist uses soap and water to wash your hands.
- Be aware that there are many medications that can increase your sensitivity to UV light, such as some antibiotics, some antidepressants, some antihistamines. Check your medication before getting a gel manicure so that you can take extra care to protect your hands from blisters and burns.
- If you get gel manicures regularly, give your nails a break at least every few months. They need the chance to breathe, and you’ll be better able to spot any abnormalities under the nail.
These precautions also apply to at-home gel manicure kits. The lamps are not as powerful, but your hand will likely be under it longer.
Signs of Subungual (Under-the-Nail) Cancer
- Brown or black streaks in the nail.
- Streaks on the nails that increase in size.
- Bruise on the nail that does not go away or move up as the nail grows.
- Nail that separates from the nail bed.
- Darkening of the skin next to the nail.
- Nail that bleeds or develops a nodule.
- Thinning, cracking or distortion of the nail plate.
Schedule an appointment for a consultation
For a knowledgeable consultation and a pleasant, safe experience, contact us or book an appointment online now. Our lead physician, Dr. Ife J. Rodney MD, FAAD is a trusted medical, cosmetic and surgical dermatologist in Maryland. We are conveniently located in Fulton and serve Columbia MD, Clarksville, Ellicott City, Laurel, Bowie, Silver Spring and surrounding areas in PG and Howard County, Maryland.