Safety In The Nail Salon

A recent trend that has hit the nail salons with a bang is the gel manicure. These are special types of manicures in which gel acrylics are applied to the nail and then cured or cross linked by ultraviolet (UV)  lamps. During the procedure, multiple coats are applied to the nail and each coat is followed by UV light exposure. The popularity of the gel manicures lies in its multiple benefits: a look that is natural,  glossy, and long lasting.

But are there dangers associated with these manicures and more specifically the UV light exposure? It is well known that UV light either from sun exposure or tanning beds is a risk factor for skin cancer development.  An article in the Archives of Dermatology from 2009 actually reported cases of skin cancer that may have been associated with UV light from nail manicures. The article just cited a few case reports and therefore it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions on the actual level of risk but here are some facts we know:

The cons:

  • the UV light used in the manicure lamps are UVA rays which penetrate more deeply into the skin
  • UV light can alter and damage DNA in skin cells and this can promote skin cancer
  • UV light can produce other signs of sun damage like sunspots, wrinkles and altered skin texture, and hyperpgimentation/long term darkening of the skin especially in darker skin tones (this is called photo-aging)

The upsides:

  • the level of energy output of the UV lamps is low and far lower than  tanning bed lights (which definitely are associated with higher skin cancer risk because of the high energies, deeper penetration of UVA rays, and total body surface area exposure)
  • the exposure time of UV light in nail salons is very brief and  we know the risks of skin cancer and sun damage are associated with long term cumulative exposure.

The bottom line is that there may be an increased risk of skin cancer and photo-aging with these UV lamps but the degree of risk needs to be determined.  As with any form of UV exposure including sunlight and outdoor activity, it is always advisable to limit exposure times and when there is exposure to UV light broad-spectrum sunscreen that covers both UVA and UVB rays should be applied.

Some practical tips for those who are willing to accept possible risks associated with UV exposure and proceed with gel manicures:

  • Take broad spectrum sunscreen with you to the nail salon. Use a sunscreen with a physical blocker as this takes effect immediately while a chemical sunscreen can take up to 30 minutes before it is active.
  • Prior to each cycle of UV exposure, apply a fresh coat of sunscreen to the hands
  • Alternatively, make sure your hands are covered by a towel.
  • If you wash your hands the sunscreen will be removed so keep re-applying
  • Remember that sometimes the UV lamp is used for other procedures such as acrylic nails and also to dry top sealers and topcoats
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