Are Manicures Safe? Experts Recommend Reviewing Health Risks Before Booking an Appointment

  • A recent study found that radiation emitted by UV nail polish dryers can damage DNA in skin cells and cause mutations in human cells.
  • Many nail polish dryers use UVA light bulbs; UVA light is often cited as a risk of skin cancer.
  • Experts recommend individuals avoid making manicures a habit, and emphasize the importance of having “polish-free nails” regularly.
Woman getting her nails done

Getty Images / StefaNikolic

A recent study found that radiation, emitted by UV nail polish dryers that are typically used on gel nail polish, can damage DNA in skin cells and cause mutations in human cells that may lead to skin cancer.

“Our study describes a potential cancer-risk factor for females that regularly get gel manicures. It is important to weigh the risk, especially for people at higher sensitivity to UV light and susceptibility to cancer,” Maria Zhivagui, PhD, first author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar in the Alexandrov Lab at the University of California San Diego, told Health in an email.

For years now, conversations have come up concerning UV dryers used for gel manicures as a risk factor for skin cancer; these claims have been deemed controversial and require additional study. Yet experts claim getting any type of manicure in a nail salon may have health risks.

“Health risks associated with getting a manicure include nail infections, skin irritation and skin rashes from chemicals used, and symptoms associated with breathing in the vapors and dust floating in the salons,” Susan Massick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Health

Before you book your next appointment, here’s what else you need to know about the potential health risks of getting a manicure and the recommendations experts have on how to mitigate your risk. 

UV Nail Dryers and Raditation

In order to better understand the effects of radiation from UV nail dryers, Dr. Zhivagui and her colleagues exposed human and mouse cells to radiation using a popular UV nail lamp found in many nail salons across the U.S. They discovered when the cells were exposed to the UV light from the lamp for 20 minutes, around 20% to 30% of the cells died and some of the cells also experienced damage to their DNA.

Furthermore, the researchers found that exposure to the UV nail polish lamp for three consecutive 20-minute sessions led to 65% to 70% of cell death and it also caused mitochondrial and DNA damage in the remaining cells.

According to Dr. Zhivagui, there are three different classes of UV light radiation, including ultraviolet C (UVC), ultraviolet B (UVB), and ultraviolet A (UVA). The light emitted from nail dryers are usually in the UVA spectrum, which is similar to tanning beds. Hence, the UV rays can pierce into the deeper layer of the skin and activate the melanin cells underneath the nail, turning it into dark colors, she added.

“One of the medical cases reported was a melanoma on the nail, the most dangerous skin cancer type, associating it to exposure the UV lamps by dermatologists,” Dr. Zhivagui explained. “When skin cells are exposed to the UV rays from the machine, we observed cellular and molecular changes known to be hallmarks of cancer.” 

Dr. Massick noted that UV dryers for gel manicures use UVA light bulbs and UVA is a known risk factor for skin cancer. By using UV nail dryers, people run the risk of unwanted and unnecessary exposure to UVA light on their hands and fingers. 

“With frequent usage, you may increase your risk of skin cancer by virtue of this concentrated UVA light,” she added. 

Despite the study’s findings, Dr. Zhivagui emphasized that the study does not prove UV nail lamps cause cancer, and that more studies are needed to evaluate whether people who get gel manicures are at higher risk of developing skin cancer compared to people who don’t.

Manicures and Health Risks

According to Dr. Massick, getting a manicure that does not involve UV dryers can also have other health risks, including potential nail infections and paronychia—inflammation of the nail folds around the nail plate. 

These types of infections can be caused by bacteria such as Staph, yeast, and fungi, like Trichophyton or Candida, as well as virus infections, like HPV warts. That’s why it is so important for nail salons to follow the highest industry standards for cleanliness, sterilization of equipment, and sanitizing between clients, Dr. Massick explained. 

Other types of manicures, like acrylics, may also cause damage to your nail health, Dr. Massick added. That’s because acrylics require filing down your real nails which can cause thinning or even damage to it. In addition, to remove acrylics, nail technicians may need to file your real nails down even more or use chemical removers like acetone.

“Because of the strong glue, your nails may need to soak in acetone for a period of time. The wear and tear related to acrylics can result in nail thinning and cracking,” she said. 

This isn’t to say you have to avoid use of acetone and acetate altogether. They aren’t known to cause any serious, long-term health issues, though your nails may be a little thinner, Aaron Lamplugh, PhD, postdoctoral research associate in the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Health in an email. 

This is, of course, assuming you aren’t breathing in fumes from nail salons for long periods of time.

“Most of the risk from chemical exposure falls on people who are in and around salons daily for long periods of time, such as salon workers and people who live or work in buildings that might be directly attached to or adjacent to a salon,” Dr. Lamplugh explained.

Assessing Health Risks for Your Next Manicure

Dr. Lamplugh noted that while there’s nothing inherently unsafe about getting a manicure, there are also no notable health benefits to having your nails done. It ultimately comes down to what you feel most comfortable with.

If you still want to get a manicure despite some of the risks, experts recommend taking some health precautions to protect yourself against the potential effects of UV light and chemical exposures. Some precautions include:

  • Limit nail salon visits to a few times a year rather than an ongoing basis. 
  • Regulate the total amount of time spent in nail salons. 
  • Choose regular nail polish rather than acrylics that are glued onto your nails or gel nails that use UV dryers.
  • Apply sunscreen or wear gloves with finger cutouts to minimize UV exposure, or ask for an alternative LED dryer.
  • Go to a reputable nail salon with working ventilation systems or check for current licenses if required in your state.
  • Ask about sanitizing and sterilizing protocols prior to your visit. For example, nail instruments should be sterilized before use and certain tools like nail files should be single-use and disposable.
  • Skip your nail visit if you have any breaks in your skin, such as cuts, wounds, or scratches.
  • Advise your nail technician to never pick, cut or push back your cuticles as they help maintain the health of your nails.
  • Consider bringing or using your own tools at the nail salon.

Dr. Massick emphasized that it’s fine to get a manicure for a special occasion or as a gift to yourself, but people should avoid going every week or every three weeks that many people find themselves in. “It’s important to allow your natural nails time to be polish-free for periods of time.” 

If you notice discoloration or thickening of the nail plates or experience pain or swelling around the nails, reach out to a board-certified dermatologist.

Was this page helpful?
3 Sources uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Zhivagui M, Hoda A, Valenzuela N, et al. DNA damage and somatic mutations in mammalian cells after irradiation with a nail polish dryer. Nat Commun. 2023;14(1):276. doi:10.1038/s41467-023-35876-8

  2. Schwartz CT, Ezaldein HH, Merati M. Ultraviolet light gel manicures: is there a risk of skin cancer on the hands and nails of young adults? J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2020;13(7):45-46.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. UV Radiation.

Related Articles