Australian radiation safety agency weighs in on health risks of UV nail manicure lamps

Australia’s radiation safety agency says it is aware of health concerns about ultraviolet nail polish drying devices, but its own research indicates the devices pose a low risk provided use is limited to the few minutes needed to set nail polish.

Last week, Cosmos reported on new research from the University of California San Diego showing chronic use of the UV nail polish drying devices led to cell death and cancer-causing mutations in human skin cells, in a paper published in Nature Communications.

Lead author of the UC San Diego study, researcher Dr Maria Zhivagui tells Cosmos, she previously used the devices at home and in the salon but stopped after seeing the results.

“I was doing it both in-house and in the nail salon. But I completely stopped both practices.”

The UC San Diego study investigated the effect of UV exposure from the devices on skin cells, finding just one 20-minute session led to 20-30% cell death, while three consecutive 20-minute exposures caused between 65- 70% of the exposed cells to die. 

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) is the leading Australian Government agency responsible for identifying, assessing and communicating the health and safety risks of radiation.

Associate Professor Ken Karipidis, assistant director of health impact assessment at ARPANSA says the agency’s own research indicates the devices are only hazardous if used for much longer than needed to dry nail polish.

In 2021, the agency collaborated with the Queensland University of Technology to test eight UV nail drying devices commercially available in Australia, ranging in price from $10 to $80.

While the study found the device with the highest UV radiation was hazardous after 38 minutes, this was much longer than required to dry nail polish (up to 2.5 minutes). The study is published in the Australasian Journal of Dermatology.

In the UC San Diego study, three types of skin cells were exposed for periods lasting 20 minutes.

Karipidis says concerned users can “opt to wear fingerless gloves and/or sunscreen to protect their hands during the nail polish drying process”, drawing on guidelines from the US Food and Drug Administration

The FDA guidelines recommend a time limit of no more than 10 minutes per hand, with use restricted for sun-sensitive individuals, and suggests protections such as wearing sunscreen or gloves exposing only the fingernails.

“Cancer Council welcomes new research that helps us better understand possible skin cancer risks,” says Professor Anne Cust, Chair of the organisation’s Skin Cancer Committee.

Cust says exposure to UV radiation from the sun and other sources causes 95% of melanomas. But while there is good evidence about the risks of sun exposure and solarium use, there isn’t yet strong research about the UV devices used in nail salons. 

“Despite improvements in melanoma rates amongst Australians under 40 years of age, skin cancer remains the most common and one of the most preventable cancer types. Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime, and approximately 2000 people in Australia die from skin cancer each year.”

UV nail devices are not regulated in any Australian state. The Therapeutic Goods Administration oversees UV devices used for medical purposes, but it does not regulate UV devices for cosmetic use.

Zhivagui says while UV nail polish drying devices have been available since the 1980s, their use in setting acrylic and gel manicures has become more widespread in salons and homes over the last decade. She flags an additional concern with at-home kits, in that a consumer may be inclined to use the devices more frequently, increasing the risks.

She says further research is needed.

“I want to stress the importance of the need of epidemiological studies in order to quantify the increased risk of skin cancer upon exposure to these artificial UV lamps,” Zhivagui says.

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

Karipidis agrees further epidemiological studies are needed to confirm the results in human populations. He says while the UC San Diego study is important, effects on cells in the lab may not be directly transferable to humans.

ARPANSA is also undertaking further research with Monash University into the health and safety of UV radiation used for cosmetic purposes.

In the meantime, the agency recommends consumers should be provided with safety information and advice about the potential hazards of UV nail drying devices.

Victoria’s health department says it continues “to monitor risks posed by any technology that involves UV radiation, and won’t hesitate to act where appropriate to protect the public health of Victorians”.

Please login to favourite this article.