The Truth About Gel Manicures and Ways To Get a Safer Manicure

How dangerous are those UV lights really?

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, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Some of this has to do with the drying process.

The Risks of UV Rays

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), according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 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 and/or UVB radiation," warned Dr. Wysong.

How To Keep Your Nails Healthy

But good news, 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. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), 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. According to the FDA, 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, according to the AAD.

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, according to the FDA. Certain cosmetics, fragrances, and skincare products can also make you more sensitive to UV rays. So it's best to avoid those products prior to getting your nails done.


Gel manicures are fun and long-lasting, but they do involve exposure to UV rays by 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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