Recently, I quit getting gel manicures. I pretended the reasons were virtuous, even ambitious— to save money, and maybe to become an Instagram-famous nail artist in my own right. I told myself the trendy no-makeup makeup look applies to nails, too, and bought a basically-clear polish that cost so much I can’t talk about it. But the real reason I abandoned my gel manicure habit in favor of self-righteousness was more or less the same reason I give up most unnecessary indulgences I once loved: I became convinced it would give me skin cancer, and worse.
It started with a women’s magazine story, and then another. To quote the latter: “We receive so many warnings about the dangers of sunbeds, but they're no different than the UV lighting we use to set our gel manicures.” Well, except of the amount of skin exposed. And the strength of the lights used. But I knew what the writer meant. Still, this wasn’t enough to scare me off. What got to me was the warning that UV-A radiation, like that used in gel manicures to harden the nail polish and thus make it less likely to chip, “cause(s) signs of premature aging like dark spots and wrinkles.” No bodily function causes me more useless anxiety than ‘premature aging,’ and I know I’m not alone, because I read women’s magazines, which are almost single-mindedly devoted to its prevention.
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.”
As for the more cosmetic concern of premature aging, Chung suggests wearing sunscreen to the nail salon, or even DIY-ing a pair of manicure-ready gloves. “You could just take white cotton gloves and chop off the fingertips,” she says. “They have a lot of dust-on powder sunscreens too, so you could easily have the manicurist brush your hands with that [before going under the light]. I would still recommend sunscreen if people are worried about the aging thing especially.”
This not to say that gel manicures are entirely without risk — they’re unquestionably hard on your nails, especially if you pick them off — but probably, the health risk they pose is no greater than their radiation-less sister, the normal manicure. Chung advises salon-goers to skip the cuticle-cutting (cuticles protect the skin around your nails from bacteria), and to bring your own tools if you’re worried about hygiene. Some places also offer LED lights in addition to UV-A to set gel manicures, and Chung suggests opting for those, if they’re available. And, as always, every day for the rest of your life: Wear sunscreen.