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Could nail salon drying lamps cause cancer?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
nail salon drying lamps

Gel manicures have become popular. Nail salon drying lamps use UV lamps to dry the gel. A previous study suggested high wattage lamps could lead to DNA damage from UV-A radiation and skin cancer. A new study suggests there is a risk of skin cancer from nail salon drying lamps, but the risk is low.

Nail salon drying lamps vary in light intensity

Few consumers are likely to inquire about the intensity of gel manicure drying lamps that vary in UV-A intensity.

Researchers from Georgia Regents University in Augusta conducted a random sampling of 17 different UV nail lamps used in salons to determine just how much ultraviolet radiation is emitted.

“There is a vast range in the amount of light coming out of these devices,” said Dr. Lyndsay R. Shipp, the study’s lead author and a postgraduate resident at the university’s Medical College of Georgia in a press release.

Some lamps emit very little UV light while others give off a "significant" amount Shipp said.

UV exposure still adds up

Though the lamps were found to be pose little hazard for squamous cell carcinoma, UV exposure adds up to raise that risk. Women who receiving gel manicures frequently could indeed be putting themselves at risk - but only in theory Shipp said.

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In fact, just driving down the road can mean you'll get the same amount of ultraviolet exposure as that emitted from most nail salon drying lamps. Higher wattage means more risk however.

Don't put your nails under drying lamps

The current review builds on past suggestions that putting your hands under a drying lamp in nail salons to harden gel nail polish might be risky.

The study, published in the the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology, is the first to actually test the intensity of the light. The researchers also looked at how evenly UV-A radiation is distributed on the hand.

The researchers found:

  • Significant variance in the amount of UV-A radiation from the nail polish drying devices
  • UV-A light is probably not evenly distributed over the entire area of exposure
  • It would probably take eight to 14 gel manicures over 24 to 42 months to cause DNA damage and skin cancer and even then the risk is low

The take away

Not addressed by the researchers is that gel nail polish contains chemicals that can be irritating to the skin. Some of the polishes contain toxic chemicals that are banned in California, including BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) that is "reasonably anticipated" to be carcinogenic. Shellac contains methyl pyrrolidone which potentially can cause harm to the reproductive system. Gel polish that stays on for weeks can also make the nails vulnerable to fungal and bacterial infections.

What women should take away from the study is that gel manicure nail salon drying lamps are probably safe. But if you want to be certain you're protected you should apply sunscreen to your hands before your polish goes on. It's also important to note that not all gel manicure lamps are created equal. Some of the dryers emit higher amounts of UV-A radiation than others. Also, the study was small.

More research is needed to know for certain whether gel manicure drying lamps are definitely safe, especially given past reports suggesting higher risk of squamous cell skin cancer from the lamps. If you prefer the long-lasting shiny look of a gel manicure you can purchase gel nail polish and do it at home without worrying about the UV-A exposure of nail salon drying lamps.