Concerns raised about harmful effect of UV lamps in gel nail manicures

Ultraviolet lamps used to set gel-based nail manicures may increase the risk of harmful effects in human skin cells like cell death and cancer-causing mutations, with patterns similar to skin cancer.

UV nail polish devices are widely used in nail salons and able to be purchased for home use. Gel manicures are thought to be longer lasting than ordinary nail polish, involving a gel which is set or cured by UV or LED light.

UV lamps cure and harden the gel.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego studied the affect UV devices have on human skin cells, finding chronic use leads to cell death and cancer-causing mutations. The full research paper is published in Nature Communications.

“Our experimental results and the prior evidence strongly suggest that radiation emitted by UV-nail polish dryers may cause cancers of the hand and that UV-nail polish dryers, similar to tanning beds, may increase the risk of early-onset skin cancer,” they write.

But they advise large-scale epidemiological studies are needed to confirm the initial research.

The study’s lead author Maria Zhivagui, used to be a fan of gel manicures herself but has sworn off the technique after seeing the results.

“Once I saw the effect of radiation emitted by the gel polish drying device on cell death, and that it actually mutates cells even after just one 20-minute session, I was surprised. I found this to be very alarming, and decided to stop using it,” she says.

The study was initially prompted when co-author Professor Ludmil Alexandrov visited a dentist’s office. As he waited to be seen, he read a magazine article about a young beauty pageant contestant diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer on her finger.

“I thought that was odd, so we began looking into it, and noticed a number of reports in medical journals saying that people who get gel manicures very frequently– like pageant contestants and aestheticians– are reporting cases of very rare cancers in the fingers, suggesting that this may be something that causes this type of cancer,” says Alexandrov.

Read more: Slap on protection before getting a manicure

The research investigated the effect of UV exposure on three types of skin cells (adult human skin keratinocytes, human foreskin fibroblasts, and mouse embryonic fibroblasts). These cells were exposed to two conditions: acute exposure (two 20-minute sessions separated by an hour in between) and chronic exposure (20 minutes a day for three days).

The results show using the UV emitting devices for just one 20-minute session led to between 20 – 30% cell death, while three consecutive 20-minute exposures caused between 65 – 70% of the exposed cells to die. The UV exposure also caused mitochondrial and DNA damage in the remaining cells and resulted in mutations with patterns that can be observed in skin cancer in humans.

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While further research is needed, the results of the study show chronic use of these UV nail polish drying machines is damaging to human cells.

In Australia, solariums using UV radiation to tan the skin have been banned in all states and territories due to the risk of skin cancer. While tanning beds use a different spectrum of UV light (280 – 400 nm), the spectrum used in UV nail polish devices (340 – 395nm) had not been well studied until now.

According to the study, an estimated 3 million clients visit nail salons daily in the United States, with regular users changing their gel manicures every two weeks. The UV devices are usually used for up to 10 minutes per session.

The Aesthetic Beauty Industry Council, the Professional Nail Technicians Association and state health departments have been contacted for comment.

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