Gel manicures have been trending for some time now, thanks in no small part to their impressive longevity, resistance to chipping and unusual tenacity. This is because they're set under ultraviolet light, in what are essentially tiny tanning beds for the hands. And therein lies the rub — tanning beds are infamously associated with skin cancer. Which raises the question: Do gel manicures cause cancer?
"To be honest, there's not a simple answer about the danger of the UV rays in gel nail lamps," Dr. Chris Adigun told WebMD. "But I wouldn't spend time worrying about the UV exposure from these lamps. The risk of malignant cancer due to nail lamp exposure is extremely low."
The Skin Cancer Foundation agreed, but recommended applying a UVA/UVB sunscreen to the hands 20 minutes before they go under the lamp. Manicure frequency should be a consideration, too — as the Los Angeles Times reported in 2014, a study found that the lamps used to set gel manicures could cause sun damage after about 11 visits within two years. For the gel polish enthusiast, a good sunscreen and/or UV-blocking gloves are advisable.
Finding a manicurist who uses an LED light may also be a good idea because they take a mere 30 seconds to set the polish. And it's the lacquer itself that may actually be the bad guy here. As Adigun told Teen Vogue, frequent manicures dehydrate and thin the nail. Then, when people start picking at their gel manicures — which are likely to peel eventually — things really start to get gross.
"As peeling and lifting begin, water can seep into the nail," celebrity manicurist Jenna Hipp told Teen Vogue. "This can harbor bacteria and possibly cause fungus. Once the peeling phase starts, it's hard not to pick at your polish. If you rip it off, you're probably taking some layers of your nail off with it. This kind of damage can take over six months to repair."
Pro tip: for your nails' sake, commit the time to taking off your gel manicure the safe way. And slather your hands in SPF before sticking them under the light. Even if the cancer risk is ostensibly low, sun damage adds up over time. Put on sunblock whenever you're exposed to UV rays.