Will Gel Manicures Really Give Me UV Damage?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

I assume you’re nervous because you’ve read recent headlines likeGetting Your Nails Done Frequently Could Damage the DNA in Your Hands” and “Gel Nail Polish Lamps Linked to DNA Damage and Cancer-Causing Cell Mutations.” As often happens when it comes to beauty, these headlines are both alarming and vague.

Here’s what’s going on: In a recent study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego placed human and mouse cells in culture dishes under UV nail-polish dryers for 20 minutes at a time, and they discovered that the dryers caused cell deaths and the types of mutations that have been shown to lead to cancer. Because the experiments weren’t done on humans or following subjects over a long period, they don’t prove that using UV nail dryers (or wearing gel polish) causes or increases your risk of getting cancer. But the results aren’t good — and, frankly, not that surprising. “We know that UV radiation is a known and proven risk for skin cancer,” says the board-certified dermatologist Dana Sterna member of the Council for Nail Disorders and founder of Dr. Dana Nails.

Chris G. Adigun, a board-certified dermatologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who specializes in nail health, said she wouldn’t be surprised if researchers eventually found that UV nail dryers increase our risk of skin cancer. “Long before we could say it was proven that tanning beds can cause skin cancerwe already knew that was true from in vitro studies.”

The expert consensus: UV light is damaging. But UV nail-polish dryers aren’t the only source of UV light at the salon. Some air dryers for regular polish have UV lights, and gel-curing lamps that only have LEDs can also be harmful. “LED is a type of bulb (a light-emitting diode) that has UV output,” says the celebrity manicurist Julie Kandalecfounder of Julie K Nail Artelier. In fact, “any type of polish that has to be cured to harden or dry requires UV light,” says Adigun, so you should assume that you are being exposed to UV radiation every time you put your bare hands and fingers under a light at the nail salon and protect yourself accordingly.

But how do you protect yourself while getting a manicure? Adigun suggests manicure gloves made with UPF-rated fabric. (UPF means the fabric has been tested to protect against UV radiation.) ManiGlovz makes great, inexpensive options. And if you have long fingers, you might want to try these gloves from Solbariwhich come in multiple sizes and have slightly longer fingers for more fabric coverage.

But why not just apply sunscreen? After I read the study, I had the same thought. But Adigun did not agree with my conclusion. “As a physician, if I told you, ‘Oh, just wear sunscreen if you get gel manicures and you’ll be okay,’ I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night,” she says. “Sunscreens are tested with sunlight. This is not sunlight — it’s more intense.”

Stern suggests wearing protective manicure gloves and applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen 30 minutes before exposure to the light. I know that seems excessive, but there’s no downside to protecting yourself. Besides, manicurists these days are used to it. “You won’t seem neurotic,” promises manicurist Mazz Hanna, founder of Mazz Hanna and owner of Nailing Hollywood. “We want our clients to be healthy.”

So if you want to keep getting UV-cured nail gels (I know I do), just take some precautions. And don’t expect to see limitations or bans on UV lights or gel manicures in nail salons anytime soon. In fact, that’s a change that some doctors don’t want. “Gel manicures are really great for my patients with disfiguring nail disorders like psoriasis, lichen planus, or lupus,” says Adigun. “It boosts their self-confidence and can even help them go back to work and feel better in their personal relationships.” I mean, same.

Wear these before you put your hands under any type of nail-salon light.

Jennifer G. Sullivan answers all of your beauty-related questions with practical advice and zero judgment. Send your questions to [email protected]. (By emailing, you agree to these terms.)


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