Explained: Can gel manicures cause skin cancer?

Getting a gel manicure may be less safe than many think. Image used for representational purposes/Pixabay

There is no greater joy than getting the perfect gel polish manicure — imagine those beautifully shaped nails with the perfect nail paint! However, this want for perfect nails could be harmful to our health.

A study published in Nature Communications has now found that the UV-nail polish dryers used during a gel manicure can damage DNA and lead to cancer-causing mutations in the human cells.

Let’s take a closer look at what the study has revealed and if we should forgo such manicures?

What the study found

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego and University of Pittsburgh exposed human and mice cell lines to ultra violet light from nail dryers. The findings showed that after a single 20-minute exposure, 20 to 30 per cent of the cells died, and after three consecutive 20-minute exposures 65 to 70 per cent of the cells died.

Senior author Ludmil Alexandrov said researchers cannot conclude, based on the study, that these dryers increase cancer risks. Scientists would need to conduct a large-scale epidemiological study to quantify the changes in cancer risk in the general population.

“But we very clearly see that it does negatively affect cells, and it damages DNA,” said Alexandrov, an associate professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the UC-San Diego.

The study also found that UV lights may cause DNA damage over time. “We also saw that some of the DNA damage does not get repaired over time, and lead to mutations after every exposure with a UV-nail polish dryer. Lastly, we saw that exposure may cause mitochondrial dysfunction, which may also result in additional mutations. We looked at patients with skin cancers, and we see the exact same patterns of mutations in these patients that were seen in the irradiated cells,” said Alexandrov about the study and the findings.

Wait, but how are manicures linked to UV lights?

For the uninitiated, a gel manicure is a service that uses a gel-based polish. Nail artists have lauded gel manicures over the regular ones, as they are more durable. While regular polish can chip as quickly as two to three days, a gel typically stays chip-free for weeks. Besides lasting longer, gel manicures are super shiny, and feel sturdier.

Most of the steps in getting a gel manicure are the same as the traditional one, but after painting the gel nail on to the nails, it is cured with an ultraviolet or LED light to help lock it in place for long-lasting wear. Each coat of gel polish is needed to be cured for about 30 to 60 seconds at a time.

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It is this step that has raised concerns among many — the exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

Dr Chris Adigun, a dermatologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who specialises in nail disorders, explained to Today.com, “Gels, by definition, need a UVA exposure to polymerise. So if there’s no UVA, there is no gel manicure.”

The UVA rays are the most mutagenic wave length range of the UV spectrum, penetrating the skin more deeply than UVB rays and playing a role in skin cancer development and premature skin aging such as wrinkles and sun spots.

UV light concerns

Exposure to UV light comes has various health risks, which have been cited in the past too. New York-based dermatologists Dr Joshua Zeichner, MD, explains that excessive exposure to ultraviolet light, even in the form of a nail polish dryer, can increase the risk of the exposed skin to premature ageing. The skin on the hand is also thinner than other parts of the body, which means it’s able to lose elasticity faster and age at a much more rapid rate, he explained to Brides.com.

Dr Kavita Mariwalla, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist, told InStyle that that though UV dryers may not be equivalent to sitting out in the sun unprotected, it’s still important to exercise some caution.

“Although a weekly or twice a month gel manicure in and of itself likely won’t cause skin cancer, if you are a regular and have been doing it for years and years then I think you may notice more freckling on your hands,” she notes.

In gel manicures, it is cured with an ultraviolet or LED light to help lock it in place for long-lasting wear. Each coat of gel polish is needed to be cured for about 30 to 60 seconds at a time. Pixabay

How to prevent UV damage

Dermatologists have suggested some precautions to reduce health risks. They suggest that people cover their hands and fingers with a garment that has a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating, whether it’s a glove with the tips cut off, a shirt or a scarf.

The American Academy of Dermatology also recommends applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to your hands before getting a gel manicure.

The bottom line? Just remember that at the end of the day, you’re still exposing your hands to UV rays repeatedly when you go in for gel manicures. So maybe it’s time to limit the gel manicures to special occasions.

With inputs from agencies

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