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Radiation from nail dryers can damage DNA and cause cancer-causing mutations in human cells, a new study has found — and that might make you wonder if your regular gel mani-pedi is worth the risk.
Some dermatologists say the findings, in a study published Jan. 17 in the journal Nature Communications, aren’t new when it comes to concerns about ultraviolet or UV light from any source. In fact, the results reaffirm the reason why some dermatologists have changed the way they get their gel manicures or stopped doing them altogether.
“The findings add to already published data on the harmful effects of (ultraviolet) radiation and show direct cell death and tissue damage that can lead to skin cancer,” said Dr. Julia Curtis, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Utah. , who was not involved in the study.
“Tunbeds are listed as a carcinogen and UV nail lamps are mini tanning beds for your nails to cure the gel nail,” said Curtis.
A form of electromagnetic radiation, ultraviolet light has a wavelength of 10 to 400 nanometers, according to the UCAR Center for Science Education.
Ultraviolet A light (315 to 400 nanometers), found in sunlight, penetrates deeper into the skin and is commonly used in UV nail dryers, which have become popular in the last decade. Tanning beds use 280 to 400 nanometers, while the spectrum used in nail dryers is 340 to 395 nanometers, according to a press release for the study.
“When you look at the way these devices are presented, they are marketed as safe, with nothing to worry about,” said corresponding author Ludmil Alexandrov in the press release. “But to our knowledge, no one has yet studied these devices and how they affect human cells on a molecular and cellular level.” Alexandrov holds dual titles as an associate professor of bioengineering and cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California San Diego.
Researchers exposed human and mouse cells to UV light and found that a 20-minute session led to the death of 20% to 30% of the cells. Three consecutive 20 minute exposures caused 65% to 70% of the exposed cells to die. The remaining cells experienced mitochondrial and DNA damage, resulting in mutations with patterns seen in human skin cancer.
The biggest limitation of the study is that exposing cell lines to UV light differs from conducting the study on live humans and animals, said dermatologist Dr. Julie Russak, founder of Russak Dermatology Clinic in New York City. Russak was not involved in the investigation.
“When we do (irradiate) it in human hands, there’s definitely a difference,” Russak said. “Most UV radiation is absorbed by the top layer of the skin. If you directly irradiate cells in the petri dish, that is something else. You have no protection against the skin, corneocytes or the upper layers. It is also a very direct UVA radiation.”
But this study, along with previous evidence – such as case reports of people developing squamous cell carcinomas, the second most common form of skin cancer, in combination with UVA dryers – means we “definitely need to think more carefully about exposing our hands and our fingers without any protection from UVA light,” said Dr. Shari Lipner, an associate professor of clinical dermatology and director of the nail department at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Lipner was not involved in the study.
If you’re concerned about gel manicures but don’t want to give them up, there are some precautions you can take to minimize the risks.
“Apply broad-spectrum sunblock containing zinc and titanium around the nails, and wear UV gloves with the fingertips cut off when it’s time to cure your nails,” said Curtis, who doesn’t get gel manicures. “I would recommend gel nail alternatives such as the new wraps available online.” (Gel nail foils or strips are self-adhesive gel nail products that do not always need to be placed through UV nail dryers.)
Some salons use LED lights, which are believed to emit no UV light or much, much lower amounts, Lipner said.
Lipner gets regular manicures — which usually last her seven to 10 days — not to avoid UV light, but rather because she doesn’t like the nail-thinning acetone used in gel manicures.
“Ordinary manicures are just air dried,” she added. “Gel manicures need to be compounded or sealed and the polymers in the nail polish need to be activated, so that can only be done with the UVA lights.”
If you’ve been getting regular gel manicures, Lipner recommends seeing a board-certified dermatologist who can examine your skin for skin cancer precursors and treat them before they become a serious problem. (Ultraviolet light can also age skin and show up as sun spots and wrinkles, she said.)
There isn’t enough data for experts to estimate how often people can get gel manicures without putting themselves at risk, Lipner said. But Curtis recommended saving them for special occasions.
Russak doesn’t get gel manicures often, but uses sunscreen and gloves when she does, she said. Pre-applying serums rich in antioxidants, such as vitamin C, can also help, she added.
“As a dermatologist, I probably change gloves three or four times on just one patient. And with a regular polish, the nail polish is gone after three, four glove changes,” Russak added. “The gel manicure certainly has a much better longevity, but is it really worth the risk of photoaging and developing skin cancer? Probably not.”
People with a history of skin cancer or who are more sensitive to light because of lighter skin or albinism, medications or immunosuppression should be more careful about taking precautions, experts say. Whether or not you’re at higher risk, CNN’s dermatologists spoke with caution.
“Unfortunately, complete protection is not possible, so my best recommendation is to avoid these dryers altogether,” said Zeichner.