Chip-resistant for two-plus weeks, glossy and ideal for helping weak nails grow longer—when it comes to convenience, little can rival a good gel manicure. But its allure has dimmed in recent months following the release of a study which raised serious questions about the safety of the UV lamps used to cure gel polishes and whether they could be causing premature aging and increase the risk of skin cancer. Soon after, the British Association of Dermatologists re-released a 2018 warning that some chemicals found in gel polish have been linked to potentially severe allergic reactions.
So, should you skip your next gel mani altogether? We asked two dermatologists to share their thoughts, plus their best advice on how you can make your next trip to the salon a little safer.
First, what is a gel manicure?
Think of a gel manicure as a step-up from regular polish in terms of durability, with a wear-time of two to three weeks. During a gel manicure, each layer of polish—typically a base coat, two or three coats of colour polish and a top coat—is placed under an ultraviolet lamp to harden for 30 to 60 seconds. Once cured, it’s set and chip-resistant, meaning there’s no waiting for the polish to dry. And though most people opt to visit a salon, it’s possible to apply and remove gel polish at home as well.
Shellac—which is what many people call a gel mani—actually refers to a specific brand of polish that bears a few differences from a pure gel manicure. Shellac is actually a mix of regular polish and gel polish, while gel manicures are pure gel. Both need to cure under UV lamps, but Shellac doesn’t typically last as long.
What did the study find, exactly?
Researchers at the University of California San Diego and the University of Pittsburgh exposed human and mice cells to UVA radiation using a curing lamp and evaluated the extent of the damage. Cancerous mutations were found following exposure to wavelengths that are generally considered safe for consumer products and 20 to 30 percent of the cells died after a single 20-minute session of exposure. While it’s true that in-vitro studies don’t directly translate to the real world, these findings are alarming, says Dr. Monica Li, a dermatologist and clinical instructor with the Department of Dermatology and Skin Science at the University of British Columbia.
“UV damage can accumulate and risks negatively affecting our skin and nail health long-term,” says Li. “I’d rather err on the side of caution. Think of a UV nail polish dryer as similar to a tanning bed—an established carcinogenic source—and avoid or limit exposure whenever possible,” she says.
Can I rest easier if my salon uses an LED lamp, or if I do my own gel nails at home?
Unfortunately, gel polish only cures if exposed to UVA, says Dr. Geeta Yadav, a dermatologist and founder of FACET Dermatology in Toronto. (UVA rays are the longer wavelength of UV light, which is associated with skin aging.) Even LED lamps, which some mistakenly believe are less harmful, still emit UV rays, she says. “Those who use LED lamps may notice that they take less time to harden polish, and while it’s good that you’re getting less exposure time, LED lamps actually do this by emitting stronger concentrations of UVA.”(How those two factors balance out remains unclear.)
What do signs of skin cancer on the hands and nails look like?
The nails themselves are not living tissue, but the skin beneath and around the fingers and toes is vulnerable to UV damage under a curing lamp, says Yadav. Every form of skin cancer looks different, but non-melanoma skin cancers can appear as crusty, scaly, or wart-like patches, while melanoma skin cancers may appear as black bumps or dark streaks under your nails, says Li.
Are there other ways that gel manicures could be harmful?
Aside from the increased risk of skin cancer, gel manicures have also recently come under scrutiny due to their potential to cause allergic reactions. Most gel polishes contain acrylates, chemical agents which have been known to trigger immune responses in some people who get frequent gel manicures. This reaction can look like redness and swelling around the nails or like an eczema-like rash around the eyes or on the cheeks, a condition called contact dermatitis, which can occur when you touch your face with polished hands. People are most likely to experience a reaction if the gel isn’t timed and cured properly and the middle layer isn’t fully dried. A 2018 statement by the British Association of Dermatologists, which has seen been reiterated through a 2023 release, warned that gel polish was causing a “contact allergy epidemic” in the U.K., and that irritation was most likely when people apply polish themselves, or when the nail technician isn’t sufficiently trained. For that reason, many experts warn against using at-home gel polish kits.
If the allergic reaction leads to the body being unable to tolerate the chemical, it can have life-changing consequences as acrylates are found in dental fillings, joint replacements and some medications.
“Nail salons can also be a source of fungal infections,” adds Li. A. “Go to a trusted location where you are certain they sterilize their instruments, or bring your own files, clippers and other tools to ensure nail hygiene,” says Li.
How can I make my manicure safer?
There are a few key steps you can take to shield your hands and feet during gel polish application. Apply a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 to your skin about 20 minutes before your salon service. You can also want to invest in a pair of UV-absorbing fingerless gloves that will cover most of the skin on your hands, but leave your nails exposed. While those methods are not 100% effective, they will considerably reduce the risks linked to UV exposure.
For similarly long-lasting options without the potential dangers, there are other nail services to consider. Dip-powder manicures are similarly long-lasting and involve a fine acrylic powder that’s applied directly to the nail, followed by a topcoat or an activator. (Keep in mind that while dip-powder manicures don’t involve UV curing lamps, they still use potentially harmful chemicals.) For a shorter commitment that’s guaranteed to be safe, switch to regular lacquer, or try press-on nails.
If you can’t give up your gel manis and pedis, you should at least give your nails a break between polish jobs. “Take a nail polish holiday for several weeks, so that your nails can repair themselves,” says Li, “and use that time to look for any abnormalities that may be otherwise masked by polish.”