Gel Nails: How Safe Are They?

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Gel nails are the hottest trend in manicures. “At Your Fingertips”, a salon in Huntsville, has seen a huge jump in its popularity. According to salon owner April Thomason, “We rarely use regular polish anymore.” She says gel manicures make up about 80 percent of their polish requests.

Charlotte Dombrowski is sold on the benefits, saying it lasts forever. She was tired of dealing with regular polish which chipped so easily. “It never failed that as soon as I walked out to my car, I would hit my nail on the belt buckle, or on the car handle, and have to come right back in. She’d have to fix it again.”

But since getting gel nails, she says, “The minute I walk out the door, I can pound on a brick, and it’s going to be just as pretty as when I left the seat.”

Gel manicures last at least two weeks. Part of the secret is four coats which are cured in between coats with an ultraviolet light.

Thomason explains, “You do a 10 second base coat, and then a 2 minute coat of color, another 2 minute coat of color, and then a 2 minute top coat.”

That’s six minutes and 10 seconds of UV light.

Thomason says they use 9 watt bulbs. There are four of them in the lamp, adding up to 36 watts of UVA light.

In recent years, questions and concerns are growing that this UV exposure could be causing skin cancer, especially since these are the same kinds of bulbs used in tanning beds.

A 2009 article in the Archives of Dermatology looked at two women who developed skin cancer on the back of their hands after years of using UV nail lights.

Dr. Angelo Mancuso, a dermatologic cosmetic surgeon in north Alabama, says, “They couldn’t attribute it to anything else. One of the women didn’t have that much sun exposure. The other woman appeared to have a little more sun exposure.” He adds, “But what they both had in common was that they were using those UVA lamps.”

But Thomason isn’t worried. She says she’s been using these lamps for 23 years and has never had a single client come to her with concerns of skin cancer on their hands or feet. She also says even though her bulbs are nine watts, “Tanning beds use 100 watt bulbs.”

She used a UV meter to show us there’s UV light coming from just about everywhere. “Point 3 in just a regular incandescent bulb.” She put the meter up to a halogen bulb and got a 1.0 reading. Her fluorescent bulb also registered at a 1.0. And her UV light for curing nails? “Looks like it’s going to be about 7.”

But dermatologists like Dr. Mancuso say women should be concerned. He says even though the lights in a tanning bed are stronger and there are more of them, when researchers did calculations on wattage per square inch of skin, “It kind of evens out, so you’re getting a high amount of wattage per small area, like we’re seeing on the hands.”

You might be thinking, if it’s that strong, wouldn’t your hands be tan after a manicure?

Dr. Mancuso says, “It’s a short period of time, but again, what you’re doing is these rays are not the ones that are going to give you the sunburns, these are the rays that are penetrating the skin.” He adds, “If you look at the skin on the hands, it’s a very thin skin. So you’re getting a deeper penetration, so again your cancers are going to be more aggressive.”

Dr. Mancuso says the other danger is the cumulative effect over time.

“That’s what you’re seeing with people who have been out in the suntan booths. They’re not going to go in suntan booth 3 or 4 times and then say, ‘Oh, I have skin cancer.’ It’s going to be, ‘I’ve been in the suntan booth for a number of years.’”

No matter who you ask, their advice is the same. If you’re worried about UVA exposure during manicures, but still want to get them, both Thomason and Dr. Mancuso say, to wear sunscreen. Mancuso recommends an SPF of 60 and also says you can cover your hands with some kind of cloth.

Another option is to find a salon that uses an LED light, although it might be tough to find a salon that uses them. Thomason says those bulbs are much more expensive. Her UV light costs $150 new. A professional LED light is about $400 to $500.

Another study was done by three scientists in the nail industry to dispute the original study, saying it was flawed. It said both patients who got skin cancer lived in Texas and could have been exposed to more sun that they realized, and that one patient had only gotten gel manicures 8 times. The research also showed the amount of UVA light people get from a manicure is equal to about 2-3 minutes in the sunlight, and that people in tanning beds get much more exposure.

Notice: you are using an outdated browser. Microsoft does not recommend using IE as your default browser. Some features on this website, like video and images, might not work properly. For the best experience, please upgrade your browser.