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Experts weigh in: Are gel manicures safe?

  • Gel manicures are popular, but many people have raised concerns about UV light exposure
  • HLN talked to two experts to get their take
Experts weigh in: Are gel manicures safe?

Gel manicures are pretty nifty: If you have an extra $40 and an hour to waste at the salon, you can walk away with a glossy, no-chip polish job that will last you up to two weeks.

However, some doctors and clients have expressed concern over the UV light exposure required during the process. In order to set the gel, nail techs must place the clients' fingers under a small, portable UV light machine. UV light, as you well know, can damage skin and even cause skin cancer. A recent New York Post article has revitalized this concern. It features the opinions of a dermatologist who believes that even the few minutes under a little hand light during a gel manicure could be a cancer risk.

“Women who frequently get gel manicures should consider their skin-cancer risk because the UV light needed to cure the gel manicure is a risk factor for skin cancer,” Dr. Chris Adigun, an assistant professor of dermatology, wrote in a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

HLN talked to two experts to get their opinion. Their advice may surprise you, and probably give you enough comfort to book that next salon appointment.

The dermatologist: Jessica Wu, MD is the assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the USC School of Medicine. She has previously written for HLN.

HLN: What sort of risks do you see in women exposing their hands to (sometimes unregulated) UV light?
Jessica Wu: While it’s certainly true that UV light is associated with skin cancer, the type and dose of light used is very low. A much more recent study from December 2012 in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology looked at this issue scientifically. The researchers concluded that nail lamps would be safe to use for over 250 years of weekly manicures, and even then there would be a low risk of skin cancer. That said, since nail lamps are unregulated, it’s possible that you may be exposed to higher UV doses than the lamps in this study, so there could still be some risk, though likely low, and less than if you went to a tanning bed or regularly sunbathed.

HLN: To most people, a few minutes of UV exposure every few weeks doesn't sound like a lot. What would the frequency of this exposure have to be to cause damage?
The researchers concluded that over 13,000 sessions with a UV lamp or over 40,000 sessions with an LED lamp would equal the UV dose received during one single treatment of phototherapy, which is a medical use of UV light to treat conditions like psoriasis.  One single treatment of phototherapy has a very low risk of skin cancer.  

HLN: What should women do if they want to protect themselves?
Find out what type of nail lamp your salon uses.  If the lamp emits UVA rays and you want to protect your hands, use a sunscreen containing a UVA-blocker, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and apply in a thick, even layer. Or, you could wear dark opaque gloves and cut off the fingertips. If your salon uses LED lamps, you have less reason to worry, since LED lights have been used for years to treat the signs of sun damage and generate new collagen.   

HLN: Do you think women should avoid gel services, or just practice moderation?
As with everything, moderation is the key. In my office, I’ve seen several patients with thinning, cracked, uneven nails from gel manicures. Gel manicures have been shown to make nails brittle and up to 50% thinner, at least temporarily. This is likely due to the acetone used to remove the gel. Reserve gel nails for a special event or long vacation when you want your manicure to really last.

The expert: Alayna Hoanghk, a technician at Nouvelle Nail Spa, a top-rated salon in the Atlanta area.

HLN: How popular are gel nails?
Alayna Hoanghk:
They've actually gotten extremely popular in the last two years. One of the reasons, it lasts up to two to three weeks. You may hear people say they are damaging to the natural nail bed, but that is not usually true if they are applied and removed properly.

HLN: How can you combat damage usually associated with gel manicures? (Softening of the nail beds, etc).
Usually we have to wrap it in a foil, and you have to give it enough time to sit. The gel polish will separate from the nail bed using an orangewood stick. If you do it gently, it should be fine. If you're doing it with a lot of force, you're gradually removing the natural nail bed.

HLN: If a client is concerned about getting a gel manicure, what would you tell them?
There are ways you can protect yourself. The salon may supply you with sunscreen for your hands before getting a manicure. We can also supply latex gloves and trim around the nail bed, so just the tips of your fingers are exposed to the light.

HLN: What are some alternative procedures that don't expose hands to UV light?
There is a new service, another polish that doesn't involve UV light. It's a sipping system. You soak it off the same way, but to apply it, it's actually much harder to apply than a gel. It's similar to an acrylic hardener, but it doesn't involved drilling or filing. LED light is becoming a big thing because it cures much quicker than a UV light, so whenever you're able to minimize time, it could be the same type of damage, but you're not in the light as long.

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