Are Gel Manicures Really Bad For Your Health?

What’s fact vs. what’s fear-mongering.

by Elise Tabin
Originally Published: 
do gel manicures cause cancer?

Of all the nail inventions that have become mainstream over the past decade, the gel manicure is perhaps the most popular. In less time than it takes to complete a regular manicure, this glossy, chip-free variation lasts upwards of 10 days thanks to a special gel formula. What sets a gel manicure apart from a traditional one is that it involves swathing the nails with specific nail polish that cures when exposed to multiple 60-second blasts of UV or LED light. Recently, this technique has come under fire for its potential health risks, leaving fans wondering if gel manicures are safe.

Despite their convenience, nail connoisseurs have always had a love-hate relationship with gel manicures. They're revered for their durability but, for years, have been criticized for years due to their potential to damage the nails and surrounding skin. Now, once again, there's buzz surrounding the highly favored mani.

A recent study in Nature suggests that gel manicure UV light drying devices may be connected to skin cancer since the curing process, which emits some level of UVA light to harden and set the durable polish, damages DNA and leads to mutations. While the jury is still out, the potential risk has not been proven reason enough to give up on gel manicures or categorize them as a fad since more research is needed to determine the potential risk and if the curing lights up the risk of skin cancer.

Even with all the noise surrounding gel manicures and their safety, there's plenty to know about them. With the help of top nail experts and dermatologists, TZR breaks down the nitty-gritty of gel manicures and if they can damage your nails and hands in every sense of the word.

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Can Gel Manicures Damage Your Nails?

The short answer: gel manicures can cause harm to the nails. However, most nail-related damage stems from the removal process, which involves soaking the nails in acetone. Board-certified dermatologist Dana Stern says acetone can dehydrate the nail and cuticle, making them more prone to brittleness, peeling and breakage. "Damage can also occur from aggressive mechanical removal, be it scraping, self-peeling or using an electric file, which thins the nail plate." Ripping, picking or peeling gel polish off the nails can also sabotage their health.

According to board-certified dermatologist Michelle Henry, common signs of gel manicure-inflicted nail impairment includes a weakening of the nail bed and nail plate separation. "Sometimes, we see the nail starting to separate from the nail bed, which happens from either forcefully taking off the polish yourself or drilling it off." To properly remove the leftovers of a gel manicure without wrecking the nails, first, file down the gel polish to a thin layer and then soak off the remainder in acetone. To minimize the risk of damage, some gel polishes are formulated for easier removal, like Orly Easy-Off Gel Basecoat, a favorite of Mazz Hanna, CEO of Nailing Hollywood. There are also acetone-free alternatives such as Manucurist Green Flash, the first LED nail polish that uses a castor oil-enriched formula to remove polish in one minute.

That's not to say that removing the cured gel from the nails is the only cause of nail damage. Whether you're more of a DIY gel manicure girl (there are reports of contact eyelid dermatitis arising from at-home gel manicures because of more exposure to potential allergens and inappropriately cured gel that irritates the skin) or opt for the professional version, all gel manicures rely on drying lamps outfitted with fluorescent UV or LED lights to harden the liquid polish into a polymer, which gives it permanence.

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Can Gel Manicures Cause Skin Cancer?

Although UV light is a known carcinogen, Dr. Henry says not every exposure to it causes skin cancer. Unprotected exposure to UVA and UVB rays damages the DNA in skin cells producing genetic defect mutations that can lead to skin cancer and premature aging, such as wrinkles, brown spots, uneven skin tone, skin laxity, and volume loss. With these lamps, there's more UVA light exposure than UVB, which comes with the potential for irreparable skin harm. "Skin cancer is a cumulative effect; the skin doesn't forget its exposure. The problem is that no one knows when the last exposure may be enough to tip things over," she adds. The hands are under the lamps for 10 to 15 minutes at most, and most people wait to repeat the process two weeks later. But if that's enough to cause cancer-causing DNA damage is still unclear.

Dr. Stern says it's also difficult to quantify the risks of UVA exposure during repeat gel manicure sessions. "There are so many variables concerning the types of lamps, bulb life, exposure times, positioning of the skin relative to the light, skin types that are exposed, and manicure frequency. How much risk a typical gel manicure poses requires more studies where participants have frequent gel manicures and are followed over time."

Are LED Lamps Better Than UV Ones?

Gel manicures use one of two gel-curing lights: UV and LED. Both emit UV light, just at different wavelengths. Hanna says UV typically takes longer to cure, so she favors LED. Plus, LED lamps are believed to be safer than UV bulbs, but the wavelength emitted is not always transparent, so there is some discrepancy if one is superior to the other. For example, Dr. Stern references a study published in the Australia Journal of Dermatology that measured the radiation emitted by eight so-called LED devices emitting light in the UVA range. "Therefore, it is hard to know the wavelength emitted, so assume that all nail lights and dryers emit UVA radiation; there is no ‘safer’ lamp type."

Nonetheless, the less time the nails can sit under a curing light, the better. According to Hanna, newer LED lamps, like Orly's Cordless Gel Lamp LED 900FX, cure gel in as little as 30 seconds. "It has a built-in technology to eliminate dead spots (when gel doesn't cure evenly) and the need to cure the nails multiple times or in different positions, which helps cut down on overall light exposure."

Regardless of the light used, Dr. Henry guestimates that UV exposure in these lamps is equivalent to the amount of sunlight we should get daily. "So, if you're getting a gel manicure, know that's your allotment of UV light for the day."

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How To Protect Your Nails From Damage

If you're still team gel manicure, there's no need to bypass it just yet. Gel manicures can still be done safely with a reduced risk of damage by implementing a few simple practices.

Using sunscreen before a gel manicure is imperative to protect the skin, prevent photoaging and minimize the risk of skin cancer. "Apply either a waterproof or water-resistant SPF about 15 to 20 minutes before getting a manicure, especially when using a chemical sunscreen, which needs time to absorb and bind with the skin," Dr. Henry says. Her picks include La-Roche Posay Anthelios Melt-In Milk Sunscreen and CeraVe Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 Body Lotion. "SPF 30 is good, but you may want to use SPF 50 depending on how long the manicure is because the hands are in direct contact with the light for some time, especially if nail art is involved."

Another simple solution is wearing fingerless protective gloves, such as Solbari Fingerless Driving Gloves. "Gloves protect exposed areas that are not covered adequately in sunscreen," Dr. Stern adds.

If long-lasting, chip-resistant polish is a must, but playing it super safe is important, consider fast-drying, long-lasting polishes like Dazzle Dry, which doesn’t rely on lights of any kind. “I’m obsessed with Dazzle Dry. It is applied and removed like regular polish but can last up to two weeks like gel,” Hanna says. “It’s also fortified with vitamins and minerals, so it’s a great way to restore damaged nails for taking gel breaks.” She adds that if the nails feel weak, the gel peels, or have been consistently sensitive to heat while having gel manicures cured, it might be time to press pause on gel manicures.

The Bottom Line

Placing your hands under a UV light during a gel manicure may be more damaging than most people realize, but how severe the damage can be is still to be determined. If gel manicures damage your nails or leave your hands looking aged or dry, take a break from them for a few weeks. "Baby those nails and try taking oral biotin, which is better for nails than it is hair," Dr. Henry says. "Let the nails rest and breathe and let everything return to a healthy state."

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