(CNN) — 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 getting a gel manicure and pedicure is worth the risk. .
Some dermatologists say the findings, published in a study published on January 17 in the journal Nature Communications, they are not new when it comes to concerns about ultraviolet light, or UV from any source. In fact, the results reinforce why some dermatologists have either 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 Julia Curtis, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Utah, which was not involved in the study.
“Tanning beds are listed as carcinogenic and UV nail lamps are mini nail tanning beds to harden gel nails,” Curtis said.
A form of electromagnetic radiation, ultraviolet light has a wavelength ranging from 10 to 400 nanometers, depending on the UCAR Scientific Education Center.
Ultraviolet A light (315 to 400 nanometers), found in sunlight, penetrates the skin more deeply and is commonly used in UV nail dryers, which have become popular over the past 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 of the study.
“If you look at the way these devices are presented, they are being marketed as safe, with nothing to worry about,” author Ludmil Alexandrov said in the press release. “But to our knowledge, no one has studied these devices and how they affect human cells at the molecular and cellular level until now.” Alexandrov holds dual degrees as an associate professor of bioengineering and cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego.
The researchers exposed human and mouse cells to ultraviolet light and found that a 20-minute session caused 20% to 30% of the cells to die. Three consecutive 20-minute exposures killed 65% to 70% of the exposed cells. The remaining cells experienced mitochondrial and DNA damage, resulting in pattern mutations that have been seen in human skin cancer.
The biggest limitation of the study is that exposing the cell lines to ultraviolet light is different from doing the study in humans and live animals, said dermatologist Dr. Julie Russak, founder of the Russak Dermatology Clinic in New York City. Russak was not involved in the study.
“When we’re doing it (radiating) inside human hands, there’s definitely a difference,” Russak said. “Most of the ultraviolet radiation is absorbed by the top layer of the skin. When you irradiate cells in the petri dish directly, that’s slightly different. You have no protection from the skin, from the corneocytes or from the upper layers. It is also 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 associated with UV dryers — means that “we should definitely think more about exposing our hands and our fingers to UVA light without any protection,” said Dr. Shari Lipner, associate professor of clinical dermatology and director of the division of nails at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Lipner was not involved in the study.
If you’re worried about gel manicures but don’t want to give them up, there are a few precautions you can take to mitigate the risks.
“Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen containing zinc and titanium around your nails, and wear UV gloves with cut fingertips when it’s time to harden your nails,” said Curtis, who doesn’t get gel manicures. “I would recommend alternatives to gel nails, like the new wraps that are available online.” (Gel nail wraps or strips are adhesive gel nail products that do not always require setting by UV nail dryers.)
Some salons use LED lights, which are “believed to emit no ultraviolet light or emit much, much lesser amounts,” Lipner said.
Lipner gets her manicures done regularly, which typically last seven to 10 days, not in an effort to avoid UV light, but because she dislikes the nail-thinning acetone soak that’s associated with gel manicures.
“Regular manicures just air dry,” she added. “Gel manicures need to harden or seal, and the polymers in the polish need to be activated, so it can only be done with UV lights.”
If you’ve gotten 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, showing up as sun spots and wrinkles, she said.)
There isn’t enough data for experts to assess 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 very often, but she does wear sunscreen and gloves when she does, she said. Pre-application of antioxidant-rich serums, such as vitamin C, may also help, he added.
“As a dermatologist, I change gloves probably three or four times on a single patient. And with regular nail polish, after three or four glove changes, the nail polish is gone,” Russak added. “Gel manicures definitely have much greater 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 photosensitive due to lighter skin or albinism, medications or immunosuppression should be more careful about taking precautions, the experts said. Whether or not you’re at higher risk, though, CNN’s dermatologists spoke cautiously.
“Unfortunately, full protection is not possible, so my best recommendation is to avoid these dryers altogether,” Zeichner said.