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Is Your Gel Manicure Safe?

January 8, 2014

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Gel manicures are all the rage because they last up to three weeks, don’t chip, and make your nails look super shiny.  But are perfectly polished nails worth putting your health at risk?

I got a gel manicure once, before I knew the potential dangers. Yet I still felt uneasy while my nails dried under an extremely hot lamp. Here’s what I learned after the fact.

Can gel manicures cause skin cancer?

Maybe.

Gel polish contains polymers that harden when your nails are placed under an ultraviolet (UV) lamp to cure, or dry, the polish.

In 2009, a small study of two healthy middle-aged women with no history of skin cancer developed non-melanoma skin cancers on their hands. Both women had previous exposure to UV nail lamps, and while further investigation is needed, the study concluded that UV light exposure does elevate your risk for developing skin cancer.

However, a newer independent study asserts that there’s very little chance of getting skin cancer from the amount of UV light used in gel manicures. Researchers said “a person could put her hands under a nail lamp for 25 minutes a day without exceeding the internationally accepted safe limits for daily workplace UV exposure.”

And since typical nail salon exposure is less than ten minutes per hand, on average once or twice a month, the study assures that’s “well within the limits of permissible UV exposure.”

Can gel polish make you sick?

Yes, depending on the ingredients.

According to dermatologist Dr. Susan Taylor, some gel polishes contain the chemical butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), which is considered a cancer-causing agent.

“Although we do not know exactly how much exposure you would need for cancer to develop, it's important to be aware of this connection,” says Dr. Taylor.

Since not all gel polish contains BHA, check the ingredient list.

Meanwhile, methyl acrylate, a chemical more commonly found in gel polish, can cause shortness of breath and allergic contact dermatitis.

Are there other risks associated with gel manicures?

Definitely.

Because of the UV light exposure, getting gel manicures regularly has also been linked to premature aging, wrinkling and spotting on your hands.

Removing the polish involves soaking or wrapping the nails in acetone for 10-15 minutes and then scrapping the remaining polish, which can cause nails to become thin, brittle and dry.

Sometimes the gel manicure process causes a fungal or bacterial infection, but this is also a risk with a regular manicure when manicurists cut or push back your cuticles.

Precautions you can take

Getting a gel manicure may be more trouble than it’s worth. Most dermatologists recommend avoiding the trendy beauty treatment altogether, but if you can’t resist, there are a few precautions you can take.

Dr. Anna M. Bender, a dermatologist for Johns Hopkins University, advises you wear sunblock that contains zinc or titanium oxide, rather than regular sunscreen, before going under the UV light. She says those ingredients protect the skin from UVA rays (the kind emitted by nail lamps), while some sunscreens only protect against UVB rays.

Another way to protect your hands is to wear a pair of UV-blocking gloves with the tips cut off while your nails are drying under the UV lamp.

To lessen your risks, Dr. Taylor recommends you look for a nail salon that uses LED light (light emitting diode) to cure the gel polish. LED light dries nails faster and gives a smaller dose of UV radiation. “We don’t think this type of light will cause skin cancer,” she says.

Now that you’re aware of the risks, will you get a gel manicure?