Gel nail polish is a popular type of artificial nail that needs ultraviolet (UV) light to harden and dry. These types of polish are popular as they last longer than regular nail polish and are more resistant to chipping. However, there has been increased scrutiny over their use recently. This is due to the potential increase in the risk of skin cancer from the UV light used during the curing process. So how big is this skin cancer risk? I hope to shed light on this and offer a few practical tips to help minimize your risk so you can fully enjoy your manicure or pedicure.
The Risk of Using Gel Nail Polish
UV light has repeatedly and consistently been shown to cause DNA damage. This increases the risk of skin cancer and leads to premature skin aging. The UV light used to cure gel nail polish is mostly UVA (the longest wavelength of UV light). The long wavelength of UVA allows it to penetrate deeply into the skin. This is the same spectrum of UV light used in tanning beds, and we know tanning bed use leads to an increased risk of both squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas. A recent article showed that exposure to UV light from nail polish dryers causes DNA damage.1 However, gel nail polish use has not been definitively linked with an increased risk of skin cancer. Given the possible link, many have called for more research into this question.2
To understand the potential risk associated with gel nail polish use, we must first put it into context. The UV light from gel nail polish dryers is significantly less powerful than overhead sunlight (even when considering the variation in strength between different brands and models).3 Even regular users of gel nail polish will not change their polish more frequently than every 2 weeks. Each coat of polish requires curing so a single session can give up to 10 minutes of cumulative UV exposure. This gives a cumulative exposure of around 20 minutes per month, much less than the average person will have unprotected exposure to the sun in a given month.
LED vs. UV Light for Curing Gel Nail Polish
You may see nail polish dryers with “LED” lights advertised as a lower-risk alternative. These may even have shorter curing times. But they still emit the same harmful UV rays emitted by models that use fluorescent bulbs. In general, they can shorten the curing times on the “LED” models because they deliver more UV rays per minute than the older fluorescent bulbs.
Practical Tips for Protecting Your Skin while Using Gel Nail Polish
So, my opinion is that there is a potential to increase your risk of skin cancer through the use of UV-cured nail polish. However, the magnitude of the risk is significantly less than the risk you incur through daily exposure to the sun. There are also simple steps you can take to mitigate this potential risk. One is to decrease the frequency of gel nail polish use. For example, you may choose to use them only for special occasions. You can also alternate with other forms of artificial nails such as powder dip nails, which are also long-lasting and resistant to chipping. Another step you can take is to protect your skin from UV while you are getting the gel nail polish. This can be done by applying broad-spectrum sunscreen prior to your session, or by wearing UV protective gloves.
Always Monitor Your Skin for Damage
Finally, you must monitor your skin. Become familiar with your skin and, if you notice anything growing or changing, contact your dermatologist immediately for evaluation.
At Vanguard Skin Specialists, we recommend annual total body skin exams. If you would like to make an appointment to discuss your skin health, contact Vanguard at 719-355-1585 or fill out our online appointment request form.
Benjamin Freemyer, MD is a board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist. He specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer at Vanguard Skin Specialists. Dr. Freemyer sees patients in Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
Vanguard Skin Specialists offers dermatology, plastic surgery, Mohs surgery, dermatopathology, and aesthetics.