UV Dryers for Gel Nails can Harm DNA, Study Says. Should I Use Them?

Exposure to ultraviolet radiation is known to cause skin damage, including skin cancer. Now, new research has raised questions about the safety of nail dryers, which use UV light to dry and cure gel nail polish.

The study shows long wavelengths of ultraviolet light (UVA) from UV nail dryers can damage DNA and cause mutations in human cells that increase risk for skin cancer.

The Washington Post asked dermatologists what the finding means for people who get their nails done, whether UV nail dryers are safe and what precautions people can take when getting gel manicures and pedicures. Here’s their advice.

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What did the new study find out about nail dryers?

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego and the University of Pittsburgh exposed human and mice cell lines to UVA light from nail dryers.

The findings showed that after a single 20-minute exposure, 20 to 30 percent of the cells died, and after three consecutive 20-minute exposures 65 to 70 percent 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.

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Are gel nail polishes and UV nail dryers safe?

The Food and Drug Administration considers UV nail dryers used to set gel manicures and pedicures to be low risk when used as directed. There is no evidence at this time that the machines cause cancer, even though some research has shown that UV radiation emitted from some nail dryers is stronger than the sun, which can cause skin cancer.

Dermatologists who were not involved in the study told The Post it is important to note that the researchers examined human cells – not human beings, who have multiple layers of skin that provide additional protection against UV rays. Still, some said the results were concerning, although not surprising, given that UV-emitting devices such as tanning beds are carcinogenic to humans.

They said the recent findings highlight the potential for skin cancer-causing DNA damage.

This damage could “give rise to the most common skin cancers – basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as melanoma, the most deadly skin cancer,” said Maral Skelsey, director of the Dermatologic Surgery Center of Washington and clinical associate professor of dermatology at Georgetown University.

She said melanoma around the nail, or acral lentiginous melanoma, is particularly concerning because oftentimes it is not diagnosed until the cancer has advanced.

“It’s also found in darker skin and clinicians may not have a high index of suspicion for skin cancer in these patients,” she wrote in an email.

Dermatologists said that, theoretically, UV nail dryers would be safer when used sporadically since UV exposure – and associated cancer risks – are cumulative. Many women who get gel nails return for maintenance every two to four weeks, depending on how fast their nails grow. Some women ask for gel nails, which are stronger and less likely to chip, only for special occasions a few times a year.

“If you sat every day with your hands under one of these machines, that’d be a problem,” said Melissa Piliang, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic who has spoken about risks associated with UV lamps.

She said when people use them infrequently – once or twice per year – and take precautions such as using a good sunscreen or protective gloves to shield themselves from unnecessary exposure, “that’s far less risky.”

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How is gel nail polish different from regular nail polish?

Gel nail polish contains tiny molecules called oligomers that cure when exposed to UV radiation, making the polish shiny and durable.

Unlike regular polish that will dry on its own, gel polish will not harden without exposure to UV light, dermatologists said.

Research has shown, though, that the removal process, which entails soaking the nails in acetone for long periods of time, can take a toll on nails.

“If you’re doing this regularly – going from one gel manicure to the next – it can thin the nails, but it’s not dangerous in any other way to the nails,” said Shari Lipner, associate professor of clinical dermatology and director of the nail division at Weill Cornell Medicine.

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Is there a way to help prevent UV damage from nail dryers?

Some dermatologists recommend using a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen that is at least 50 SPF on the hands. Piliang suggested making sure it is also a physical blocker sunscreen, which contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that activates the lotion as soon as it is applied to the skin.

Other sunscreens, she said, may take longer to start protecting the skin, “so you may already have your manicure done before the other ingredients would be active.”

The sunscreen should be applied after the nail technician has finished soaking the hands or using other lotions or oils. Apply it just before the technician starts to paint the nails – ideally at least 20 minutes before exposure to UV light.

Sunscreen does not protect people from risks associated with UV exposure under the nail, such as the development of subungual squamous cell carcinoma, a rare cancer that is difficult to treat and affects the fingers or toes, Adam Friedman, professor and chair of dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, wrote in an email.

Some dermatologists believe UV protective gloves are more effective than sunscreen lotions applied to the hands. There are fingerless, anti-UV gloves designed specifically for use in UV dryers.

“Gel manicures are a good value for patients of mine that have permanently deformed nails. The gel can make them look very uniform, and professionally and interpersonally, it can be life-changing,” said Chris Adigun, a board-certified dermatologist at the Dermatology & Laser Center of Chapel Hill, N.C. “But I do tell them to protect themselves with a UV-protective physical garment over their hands.”

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Is there a long-lasting nail alternative?

Dip powders provide similar long-lasting manicures and pedicures without the need for UV nail dryers.

The technique uses a colored-acrylic, polymer-based powder and an activator instead of a UV light to cure it. After the nail is prepped, a person may dip the nail into the powder or have it painted on the nail.

Dermatologists caution clients to make sure that the nail salon and technician take proper precautions. They should avoid double dipping, or having multiple clients dip their nails into the same container of powder, to keep from spreading bacteria and other germs.

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How can I tell whether the dryer in the salon uses UV or LED light? Is LED safe?

LED lamps that do not emit UV radiation should be a safer choice. But these are dryers and are not used to cure a gel manicure.

Some LED lamps do emit UV radiation, as well, dermatologists said. The only way to be certain whether the nail dryer uses UV radiation is to ask the salon.