Gel manicures have become increasingly popular in the last few years. Fans of gel manicures say the polish lasts longer, stays shinier and is less likely to chip. Some even call the polish “invincible.”
So what’s not to love, right?
But at a recent medical conference a health expert warned that gel manicures may lead to many harmful nail problems or worse — cancer from the ultraviolet (UV) light necessary to “cure” the polish.
Dr. Chris Adigun said that when it comes to gel manicures, less is more.
Adigun, assistant professor of dermatology at The Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU School of Medicine presented her report on March 1, 2013 at the American Academy of Dermatology's 71st annual meeting in Miami Beach, Florida.
"In general, any manicure left in place for an extended period of time is not a good idea because you’re not seeing what is going on underneath the nail polish," Dr. Adigun said in a press release from the American Academy of Dermatology.
"As is the case with most things, moderation is the key when it comes to gel manicures," she said.
Gel manicures use UV lamps to seal the gel to the nail, a process known as "curing." When the polish is ready to come off, the nails are soaked finger by finger in acetone for about 10 minutes because the chip-proof polish is harder to remove, said Kathy, a manicurist at Diamond Nail Salon and Spa in San Diego.
At the conference, Adigun said that gel manicures tend to damage the nails by leaving them thinner, or causing brittleness, cracking and peeling. This increases the possibility of developing infections.
Some people have also developed contact dermatitis, a skin rash that has the appearance of a burn, and can be easily transferred from the hands to the eyes.
Adigun cited one small study that found measurable nail thinning in five women who had regularly undergone the procedure. However she said that it was not clear from the data if the thinning was caused by the process that bakes the polish to the nails, or from extended exposure to chemicals in the nail polish or the acetone required to remove it.
She also warned that more serious consequences have occurred. People who get gel manicures regularly are subjected to harmful UV lights that cause serious skin damage. Photo damage from the lamps can also “result in cosmetic changes to the exposed surrounding skin".
Natural as well as artificial UV rays such as those used in tanning beds are cancer-causing, experts say. Repeat UV exposure increases your risk of deadly melanoma skin cancer, squamous cell skin cancer and basal cell skin cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
A 2009 case report in supports the claim. In the study, two middle-aged women who had no prior history of skin cancer developed tumors on their hands after using UV lights.
Dr. Emma Taylor, a dermatologist and dermatopathologist at UCLA agrees. She said that gel manicures just “aren’t worth the risk.”
“When you are having to intentionally exposure yourself to UV radiation to make your nail polish last longer, I’d say the benefits just don’t outweigh the risks,” Taylor said. “Each time you are exposed to UV lights your cancer risk goes up, and that’s especially true if you’re getting a gel manicure every month."
Recent research looking at UV exposure shows a broad range of results. Some studies show a 15 percent cancer risk for anyone who has ever tanned — one study cited as much as a 600 percent increase risk of melanoma for regular tanning bed worshippers who were diagnosed before the age of 29.
These studies aren’t without their flaws, said Taylor. For example, most research looking at UV radiation is retrospective, or backward looking, rather than following a person over several years. This makes causality more difficult to establish, however, there's certainly shown strong correlation between exposure and development of skin cancer, which leads us to believe that UV lights do cause cancer.
But Taylor said that the ever-growing body of clinical and research evidence showing an increasing number of 20-somethings with skin cancer is “very hard to ignore”.
Tumors are even turning up on the soles of young people’s feet, which are routinely exposed during tanning sessions, she said.
“I believe the data from tanning beds is transferable to manicure lights,” said Taylor.
UV lights used in manicure salons can just as easily cause hard-to-treat cancers of the nail bed. These high-risk cancers tend to metastasize, or spread, quickly to other areas in the body.
“UV exposure can cause mutations which accumulate with repeated exposure, and those mutations increases your likelihood of developing skin cancer in the future,” Taylor said.
Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer and Scuba enthusiast who lives in San Diego with her husband and two beach loving dogs. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in publications around the world.
”Gel Manicures can be tough on nails.” American Academy of Dermatology press release. March 1, 2013. Online
Interview: Dr. Emma Taylor, UCLA. 14 March 2013
Interview: Kathy, Diamond Nail Salon and Spa, San Diego
“Tanning Beds: WHO issues Official Warning.” Skin Cancer Foundation, Sun and Skin News, vol. 26, no. 3, Fall 2009. Access online:
”Occurrence of Nonmelanoma Skin Cancers on the Hands After UV Nail Light Exposure.” Deborah F. MacFarlane, MD, MPH; Carol A. Alonso, MD
Arch Dermatol. 2009;145(4):447-449. doi:10.1001/archdermatol.2008.622. Access online:
UV Radiation and Skin Cancer: The Science behind Age Restrictions for Tanning Beds. Environ Health Perspect. 2012 August; 120(8): a308–a313. Published online 2012 August 1. doi: 10.1289/ehp.120-a308
Reviewed March 20, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith