Do Gel Manicures Really Cause UV Damage?

We spoke to experts to get to the bottom of this.

Two woman hand inside lamp for nails on table close up. UV lamp for drying nails with gel method. violet nails dried in the lamp

There’s so much to love about gel manicures. For starters, you walk out of the salon with dry nails, so there’s no need to worry about smudging. Then, there’s the fact that your mani will last so much longer than one with regular polish. But then there was news we didn’t love: A recent study discovered that UV nail polish dryers could cause cell death, which led many to wonder if getting a gel manicure is actually safe. 

“It is known that UV radiation can impact skin cells and lead to DNA damage, and this is why it is recommended to protect our skin from the harmful effects of the sun’s UV rays, which can lead to skin cancer and signs of skin aging,” says Dr. Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Cornell - New York Presbyterian Medical Center.

“UV nail polish dryers emit UV-A radiation, the same form of UV radiation found in tanning beds, which is why there has been a concern of these dryers contributing to an increased risk of skin cancer and skin aging. This UVA radiation is thought to be necessary for the gel to polymerize, which is why it is found in UV gel nail dryers.” 

Read on for everything you need to know about the new research—and what this really means for your manicures.

What Did the Research Find?

In a recent study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, put human cells in culture dishes under UV gel nail polish dryers for 20 minutes at a time. They studied the impact of UV dryers and found that they can cause DNA damage, cellular damage, and increased mutation formation, which can cause or increase your risk of getting cancer. “These changes were seen with both acute exposures and chronic exposures, with even just one 20-minute irradiation, leading to 20 to 30% cell death,” Dr. Garshick says. “Importantly, because UVA penetrates deeper, even when compared to UVB, the impact of the damage can go beyond the superficial layers of the skin.” 

How Worried Should I Be About Getting a Gel Mani?

It’s crucial to note that this study was looking at human cells, and not people points out Dr. Garshick. “While this study did show that radiation from UV nail polish dryers can be harmful to skin cells, it is not enough direct evidence alone to draw conclusions that there is an increased risk of skin cancer in humans due to UV nail polish dryers,” she says. “There have been other small reports showing cancers of the hand thought to be at least partly related to UV nail polish dryers. That said, larger studies are needed to better understand the risk and what amount of exposure could contribute to an increased risk.” 

Importantly, researchers tested exposure to the UV dryers for 20 minutes when nails are typically given one-minute exposure. “For many years, people have used regulatory UV lights, proving they are safe when used properly,” says Morgan HaileMorgan Taylor/Gelish Brand Spokesperson and nail expert. “A proper cure time for UV light is one to three minutes.” 

Using UV light is also old technology. Haile points out that many nail salons use LED lights now. “LED lights are a 60-second setting and improved high-efficiency bulbs,” she says. “Curing your gel manicure with LED lights is perfectly safe. If your salon uses UV lights to cure your gel manicure, it’s taking way too long, and they’re using outdated technology.” 

Anyone who has a higher risk of skin cancer should always be extra cautious of protecting the skin from UV radiation, whether related to the sun or other forms as well. “That said, we don’t have enough evidence to show whether those already at a higher risk of skin cancer have a greater risk of changes specific to UV nail dryer exposure,” Dr Garshick says.

“Additionally, it is suspected that even someone without a higher risk of skin cancer could be impacted by changes related to UVA exposure. We know that individuals in tanning beds, even without a personal or family history of skin cancer, have an increased risk of developing skin cancer.” Also, there have been reports of women with no personal or family history of skin cancer who developed skin cancer on the tops of their hands and had reported exposure to UV nail lights. 

How Can I Protect Myself from UV Gel Nail Dryers?

The bottom line is more research needs to be done to determine exactly how dangerous UV nail dryers may be. But, when it comes to sun exposure, it’s always best to play it safe. “While this is not enough evidence to specifically state how often to get gel manicures as we don’t know how much UVA exposure over what period of time can have an impact on humans, minimizing the frequency or using UV protection, including wearing sunscreen or UV protecting gloves, should be considered,” Dr. Garshick says. 

While more information is still needed, Dr. Garshick advises applying a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen to the hands before getting a gel manicure and using gloves, such as ManiGlovz, which are UPF 50+ UV protective gloves. “It is important to also be mindful of some medications that can make you more sensitive to UV light, such as doxycycline when using UV nail dryers,” she adds. 

Though any sunscreen will get the job done, Dr. Garshick notes that some are specifically formulated for the hands, such as Supergoop Hand Screen ($14-38) or Eucerin Daily Hydration Hand Cream with SPF ($8). For those who prefer a tinted option, she recommends Bliss Invisible Blockstar Mineral Daily Sunscreen ($25) or Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Flex ($49).  

Aside from the UV damage, gel manicures can be hard on your tips. “It is known that gel nail polish can also be tough on the nails and may lead to nail brittleness, peeling, and cracking,” Dr. Garshick says. “Taken together, for someone who is concerned, they may want to consider traditional nail polish instead of gel nail polish or to take a nail polish holiday to give the nails time to repair. If you ever notice any changes on the hands or nails, it is always best to check with a board-certified dermatologist.”

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