Do Manicures Increase Cancer Risk?

The nail gels and polishes used in manicures aren’t cancer-causing. But there is concern that some some devices that use ultraviolet light to help polishes and gels dry faster could pose a small risk for skin cancer.

nail UV lamp
UV nail lamp. Photo credit Becky Stern/Wikimedia Commons.

The primary kind of ultraviolet radiation emitted by some nail dryers – UVA – is the same type used in tanning beds, which studies have linked to an increase in skin cancer risk.

Despite this concern, it has been difficult to gauge the degree of skin cancer risk associated with nail dryer use, primarily because of the difficulty of measuring UVA emissions from the devices. One UV nail lamp study by researchers at Georgia Regents University found wide variations in the amount of UVA emitted by nail lamps at 17 randomly selected salons. The UVA exposure for a single visit to a nail salon (assumed to be eight minutes of drying time), measured in joules per centimeter squared, ranged from zero to eight. Those numbers might seem low, considering that it takes about 60 joules per centimeter squared to produce the level of DNA damage associated with skin cancer. For most of the dryers tested, however, repeated use – eight to 14 times over a 24- to 42-month period – could expose clients to radiation levels capable of producing DNA damage in the skin.

Concerns have been raised over the methods of measuring UVA exposure in this study. Well-known experts in photobiology and UV devices performed their own analysis that showed a moderate UV risk from exposure to nail dryers from 30 to 130 minutes a day, which is far longer than the eight minutes spent under the dryer at the salon. The risk of skin cancer from nail lamps was 11 to 46 times less than overhead sunlight, so the overall threat to nail dryer users was thought to be trivial based on these findings.

The amount of radiation emitted by nail dryers is not regulated by state or national agencies. The researchers from the first study noted that the “risk from multiple manicure visits remains untested,” but suggested that “even with numerous exposures, the risk for carcinogenesis [cancer-causing DNA damage] remains small.” More information is needed to determine the true risk of skin cancer associated with nail salon dryers.

For clients concerned about the risk of skin cancer, the authors recommend applying sunscreen to the hands before having the nails polished, wearing UVA-protective gloves with the fingertips cut off so only the nails are exposed to the lights, or allowing polish to air-dry as ways to limit UV exposure. Another option is to patronize salons with nails dryers that use LED lights rather than ultraviolet light.