The Truth About Gel Manicures and UV Drying Lamps—How To Get a Safer Manicure

If you're a gel manicure fan, you know they last way longer than a traditional mani, dry in what seems like seconds, and don't chip easily. But as amazing as gel manicures are, there is a downside—nail brittleness, peeling, cracking, an increased risk for skin cancer, and early skin aging on the hands. Some of this has to do with using UV drying lamps during the curing and drying process. Also, some salons may use UV drying lamps to harden the top coat of dip manicures and even regular nail polish.

Stylish trendy gel manicure pink polish nails
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Skin Cancer Risk From UV Drying Lamps

Many salons use nail-drying lamps that emit ultraviolet (UV) rays, the very same rays you catch outside from the sun—and from indoor tanning beds. UV rays are known to cause premature aging and skin cancer.

"We know that cumulative exposure to UV radiation over a lifetime is the biggest risk factor for non-melanoma skin cancer," said Ashley Wysong, MD, associate professor and chair of the department of dermatology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The younger you start getting gel manicures—or tanning—the more lifetime exposure you'll get, and the greater your risk for skin cancer.

True, you aren't under the lamp for long—usually just a couple of minutes for each hand. The FDA acknowledged the potential dangers but considers nail-curing lamps to be "low risk."

You also might be getting fooled by salons that are now saying they use LED lights and not ultraviolet rays. "If you actually look at the spectrum of light being emitted, they do include UVA or UVB radiation," warned Dr. Wysong.

Hand Health and Manicures

But the good news is that doesn't mean you should never get a gel manicure. Before your next gel manicure, you might want to adopt these precautions to protect your skin and make the process a little bit safer.

Don't Get Gel Manicures Too Often

Michele S. Green, MD, a dermatologist with a private practice in New York City, had one gel manicure and said, "It was the best manicure I've ever done." However, Dr. Green would still not make a habit of getting gel manicures; this one was for a special function.

Once in a while is okay. "But if you're thinking that this is something safe to do all the time, you're fooling yourself," Dr. Green said. You should try to go one to two weeks without wearing nail polish, as this gives your nails time to heal.

Use Sunblock

Yes, really. Sunscreen can reduce your UV exposure. Lather up your hands before a gel manicure with broad-spectrum—covering both UVA and UVB light—sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50, said Dr. Wysong. You'll want to make sure the sunscreen is water resistant as well, in case you need to rinse your hands during the manicure.

Consider Fingerless Sun-protective Gloves

You can buy protective clothing with a UPF rating—the fabric version of SPF. This means that you can also buy manicure-ready protection for your hands, too. You'll want to look for fingerless gloves with UPF 50, Dr. Wysong said.

Scope Out Your Salon Ahead of Time

The manicure itself may not turn out as well as planned if you don't have careful, experienced practitioners—and then you've exposed your hands to UV light without the benefit of a great mani. Make sure the salon is clean overall, and follow the same precautions you would for any manicure.

Avoid Gel Manicures if You're Sensitive to UV Rays

You might want to stay away from gel if you know you're super sensitive to UV light. Keep in mind that certain medications, including antibiotics, oral contraceptives, and cholesterol medications, can make you extra sensitive to UV rays. Certain cosmetics, fragrances, medications, and skin care products can also make you more sensitive to UV rays. So it's best to avoid those products prior to getting your nails done.

A Quick Summary

Gel manicures are fun and long-lasting, but they do involve exposure to UV rays by the use of nail-curing lamps. UV rays are known to cause damage to the skin that may result in premature aging as well as skin cancer. The FDA considers nail-curing lamps to be low-risk. Make sure to limit the amount of time you use the lamp, space out the time between manicures, and protect yourself with sunscreen. If you follow these steps, you can enjoy your gel manicure without worrying about the harm of UV rays.

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  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD). Gel manicures: Tips for healthy nails.

  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Ultraviolet (Uv) radiation.

  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). How to safely use nail care products.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The sun and your medicine.

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