How dangerous are those UV lights really?

By Amanda Gardner
May 25, 2018

If you’re a gel manicure fan you know they beam and shine on your nails, last way longer than a traditional mani without chipping, and dry in what seems like seconds.

But as amazing as gel manicures are, there is, sadly, a downside–and it has to do with that drying process. Technically called “curing,” it involves lamps that emit ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, the very same rays you catch outside from the sun (and from indoor tanning beds). And also the very same rays dermatologists are always warning us to avoid if we also want to avoid premature aging and skin cancer. Sigh.

“We know that cumulative exposure to UV radiation over a lifetime is the biggest risk factor for non-melanoma skin cancer,” says 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 higher your lifetime risk for skin cancer.

RELATED: 7 Skin Cancer Risk Factors (Besides Your Last Sunburn)

True, you aren’t under the lamp for long–usually just a couple of minutes for each hand–but according to researchers, curing lamps emit rays four times as strong as the sun. The FDA acknowledges the potential dangers but considers nail-curing lamps to be “low risk.”

There haven’t been any large studies on exactly what risk gel manicures pose. But in 2009, in the journal JAMA Dermatology, researchers did document skin cancer on the hands of two women who had no previous personal or family history of the condition and who had both used nail lamps.

But–good news!–that doesn’t mean you should never get a gel manicure.

Michele S. Green, MD, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, had one gel manicure and says, “It was the best manicure I’ve ever done.” She had an important function to attend, she says, and doesn’t plan to make a habit of it.

RELATED: 10 Things Your Hands Can Reveal About Your Health

Once in a while is probably okay–say, if you’re invited to a royal wedding. “But if you’re thinking that this is something safe to do all the time, you’re fooling yourself,” Dr. Green says.

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,” warns Dr. Wysong.

Before your next gel mani, you might want to adopt these precautions to make the process at least a little bit safer.

Use sunblock. Yes, really. 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, says Dr. Wysong.

RELATED: How to Remove Your Gel Mani at Home (Without Wrecking Your Nails)

Consider fingerless sun-protective gloves. Just like you can buy protective clothing with a UPF rating (the fabric version of SPF), you can buy manicure-ready protection for your hands, too. You’ll want to look for fingerless gloves with UPF 50, Dr. Wysong says, like these flashy ones from ManiGlovz ($25; maniglovz.com) or a more understated pair from MelodySusie ($11; amazon.com). 

Pick the right polish. If you’re doing a gel manicure at home, make sure your polish and lamp play nicely together. Different polish formulas require different types of curing lights, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Always follow instructions on any at-home kits.

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, like not having your cuticles cut, since cutting can raise your risk for infection.

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Avoid gel manicures if you have weak or brittle nails. They’re more likely to be damaged by a gel manicure. You might also want to stay away from gel if you know you’re super-sensitive to UV light. Keep in mind that certain meds, including some antibiotics, can make you extra-sensitive to UV rays.