I stayed off the ‘cures for two full months before deciding to do some actual research, and then I reached out to Paolo Boffetta, the director of cancer prevention at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. I spent several minutes of our interview trying to explain the way gel manicures work: Most will involve five to ten minutes of exposure to approximately 50 to 60 percent of the back side of the hand, and generally, you wouldn’t get this treatment done more than twice a month. Boffetta is very clear that heavy exposure to UV light does carry the potential to increase one’s risk for skin cancer, but gel manicures probably aren’t the place to worry about it. “Being exposed to such a low dose, for only a few minutes, on only a small percent of the total surface of the body — we don't have any data on that, because the risk would be so small that it would be almost impossible to detect it,” says Boffetta. We take a much greater risk every time we go outside on a sunny day. “Being outside on a very sunny day will make a much bigger difference, in terms of the amount of exposure people get compared to this sort of thing,” he adds. Among groups of people considered at-risk for skin cancer, gel manicure-getters are very low on the list — far below anyone who ever sunbathes, or lives in a sunny place, or works outdoors.
Additionally, the risk posed by UV light exposure is greater in adolescence. “'The risk with UV is largely with its ability to interact with the DNA,” he says. “That's why early exposure is more harmful than exposure later, because people who have this damage to the DNA done early on may accumulate more effects over time.”
Christina Chung, an associate professor of dermatology at Drexel University, also tells me that one’s age plays a role in assessing the risk posed by UV light exposure. Most (if not all) studies on the effects of UV radiation don’t control for their subjects’ previous sun exposure. This makes it very difficult to pick much smaller and less-frequent forms of exposure, like gel manicures, out of the noise. And because most people who get gel manicures are adults with many years of sun exposure already behind them, the real damage has probably already been done.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the professionals aren’t going to stop you from getting your nails done — in fact, light boxes similar to those used in nail salons are also used in dermatologists’ offices to treat a number of skin conditions, including psoriasis and eczema. While dermatologists’ light boxes use UV-B lighting and gel-curing boxes typically use UV-A, the former are typically much stronger, and are still considered quite safe. In fact, Chung tells me, “You'd have to do the weekly nail treatments for 250 years to have the same risk as a normal course of light box therapy provided by your dermatologist.” Of course, this information is based on mathematical modeling, so nobody can promise you that you for sure won’t get skin cancer from gel manicures, but the research suggests it is very, very, very unlikely. One’s exposure to UV-A light in the average gel manicure is simply too brief and too minimal. Says Chung: “If your skin isn’t changing color or turning red, the amount you're getting is probably very, very little.”