For more than a decade, researchers have suspected that ultraviolet nail dryers used for gel manicures may be associated with a higher risk of skin cancer if used regularly. Clothes dryers expose people to ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which is known to cause skin cancer from other sources, such as sun exposure and tanning beds.
A study published last week offers new evidence: it found that radiation from UV nail dryers can damage DNA and cause permanent mutations in human cells, which in turn is linked to cancer risk.
Such cell damage “is just one step on the road to cancer,” said Dr. Julia Curtis, an assistant professor in the University of Utah’s department of dermatology, who was not involved in the new research. .
However, the study did not involve real people: the researchers exposed cells derived from humans and mice to UV light from nail dryers. They observed that after 20 minutes, 20 to 30% of the cells were dead. After three consecutive 20-minute sessions, 65-70% of the cells were dead.
Previous studies have linked only a few cases of skin cancer to gel manicures. A 2020 scan identified two women in the United States who developed melanoma on the backs of their hands from 2007 to 2016. Both had had gel manicures for years. Overall, however, the researchers determined that this type of manicure – which involves applying a gel polish that must then cure under UV lamps – had little or no association with cancer.
“At this point, I would recommend or advise people to just weigh the risk,” said one of the new study’s authors, Maria Zhivagui, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Diego. “Understand what it does. There is DNA damage. We don’t know if it’s carcinogenic.
Scientists will need to study the effects of UV nail dryers on real humans before they can draw any firm conclusions about cancer risk, she added. Zhivagui and Curtis said the process could take another 10 years, given the slow pace of research.
“UV nail lamps didn’t really become popular until around the 2000s, I would say, so it can be very difficult to make the causal connection,” Curtis said.
Even so, Curtis and Zhivagui said that in their own lives, they never got manicures that required UV nail dryers.
“You’re not going to find a dermatologist who isn’t saying UVA rays age us and increase our risk of skin cancer,” said Dr. Loretta Davis, chair of the department of dermatology at Augusta University in Georgia. “So anything that’s done on purpose with this type of device is going to contribute to that.”
Davis said she doesn’t get a manicure, but would be concerned about the aging effects of UVA rays if she did.
The harmful effects of UV rays build up over time, and Davis’ own research has suggested that the more people get their manicures with UV nail lamps, the higher their risk of damage could be.
Using a UV nail dryer every two weeks is “probably too much,” she said.
“If you’re going to do it before a wedding and want to feel special, sure,” Davis added. “But to do it regularly, no, I wouldn’t do that.”
Studies have yet to determine if there is a safe level of UVA exposure in the context of manicures or exactly how much might pose a health risk.
Zhivagui’s previous research has suggested that applying acrylic nails with UV light every three weeks for a year may produce more intense UVA radiation than sunlight during that time.
All three dermatologists agreed that wearing fingerless gloves when using a UV nail dryer and applying a broad-spectrum waterproof sunscreen of at least 50 SPF before an appointment for fingernails might offer some protection.
They also said that people who are older, have lighter skin, or take medications that make them more sensitive to light, such as certain blood pressure medications, should be more cautious.
Davis said some people might decide that UV exposure from gel manicures just isn’t worth it, given how much we still don’t know.
“People don’t want to find out five years later that they were doing something risky and they could have taken precautions to protect their hands,” she said.
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