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Are gel nails dangerous? Here's everything you need to know about the cancer risk

By now we all know that sunbeds can cause skin cancer, but gel nails may pose a similar threat. That's the finding of a new study published by researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Specifically, they found that radiation emitted from UV lamps, which cure gel polish to your nails, leads to cancer-causing mutations in human cells.

The devices are a common fixture in nail salons around the world. Over the years, there's been rumblings of UV nail lamps being potentially harmful to the skin, but no hard scientific evidence ever came to light to back up these theories – until now.

Given that British women spend £161 million a year collectively on their nails, how alarmed should we be? We spoke to a dermatologist, an aesthetic doctor and a GP about how dangerous UV lamps for gel nails really are and if there is any way of mitigating the risks.

What are UV lamps for gel nails and how do they work?

The light boxes and lamps used at nail salons emit UVA light at a spectrum of 340-395nm to set the gel polish. This is different to sunbeds, which use a spectrum of 280-400nm and have conclusively been proven to be carcinogenic.

Are UV lamps for gel nails safe?

There's a lot to unpack here, so let's start with the most recent FDA ruling. In 2017 the FDA classed UV lamps for gel nails as “low risk” for developing skin cancer. The FDA hasn't changed its stance (yet), but understandably the findings of this new study has ramped up the risk level for many.

The first thing the University of California study reveals is that UV lamps can kill cells. After just 20 minutes of exposing petri dishes containing cells from humans and mice to a UV lamp, 20% to 30% of the cells died. After three consecutive 20-minute sessions, 65% to 70% of cells died.

What this tells us is the more frequent the exposure to UV nail lamps, the higher the rate of cell death.

But what rings alarm bells for skin experts is the DNA damage in the cells left behind, which showed mutations that can be observed in skin cancer patients. Dr Ophelia Veraitch, consultant dermatologist at GetHarley, explains that even though UVA nail lamps may not be equivalent to sitting out in the sun unprotected, “this study further adds to the evidence that UVA can also damage DNA and lead to skin cancer development,” she says.

GP and aesthetician, Dr Ahmed El Muntasar also points out the potential danger of frequent gel nail treatments. “Nail bed cancer can be very dangerous because the blood supply on the nail bed sometimes spreads,” he says. “If you regularly get your nails done, you won't always be able to see the actual nail bed, which means if you have an abnormality there, it could take a while to be detected.”

So should I stop having gel manicures?

What is indisputable, is that repeated use of UV nail lamps in gel nail treatments is damaging to human cells. There's also no denying that the damage from UV exposure is cumulative and that your body can't repair all of the damage. “As these DNA mutations accumulate, the risk of developing melanoma [skin cancer] increases,” says Dr Veraitch.

Dr El Muntasar agrees and breaks down the risk like this: “Any UV exposure causes mutations but it's always about the amount of UV exposure you get. So if you are getting gel nails done with UV every time you want to switch up your nail colour, you are increasing your risk of cancer."

But even the researchers behind the study, caution that a long-term epidemiological study would need to be carried out before anyone can conclusively state that UV lamps for gel manicures lead to an increased risk of skin cancers.

Aesthetic doctor Dr Sophie Shotter echoes this advice but also adds: “To me it heightens the suspicion of something that I already thought was an issue. It makes me more aware about the need to take extra protective measures [when having a gel manicure].”

If you do want a gel manicure, wear gloves and SPF

US dermatologist Dr Adeline Kikam, who readily admits that she loves getting her nails done, had this to say in an extremely helpful Instagram post: “Research will continue to evolve, and hopefully we have more answers in the near future. Till then, prevention, prevention prevention.”

So, for the time being, it comes down to personal choice whether you continue getting your nails cured with UV lamps. If you do, then Dr Shotter recommends “using a broad spectrum SPF 50 on the hands every day, and consider buying a pair of UV resistant manicure gloves like those by Manisafe.”

Likewise, Dr Kikam, recommends an alternative to gel nails. She mentions in her post "deep powders which offer longer duration without UV exposure.” If you're unfamiliar with dip-powder nails, they involve dipping the nail into coloured powder then using a clear sealant over the top for nails that claim to remain chip-free for up to a month.

But if you do decide that the risks outweigh the benefits of a gel manicure and you want to revert back to regular nail polish, then rest assured that formulations have come on leaps and bounds. There are modern gel-like polishes (long-lasting, but applied without a UV lamp and lifted away with regular nail varnish remover) such as Essie's Gel Couture, while Butter London's 10x Nail Lacquer Patent Shine promises high shine, 10 days wear and is free from 10 common toxins.

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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