Study Finds Gel Manicures Can Harm More Than Just Your Nails

The safety of gel manicures – a treatment that requires the use of a UV light machine to activate a photochemical reaction in specially formulated nail polish, according to NAILS Magazine – has been the subject of much debate in recent years. The machines make use of ultraviolet radiation in the form of UVA rays, which have been linked to premature aging and certain skin cancers like melanoma (per American Cancer Society).

While previous research, including a 2020 analysis published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, has indicated that gel manicures don't increase the risk of skin cancer, a new 2023 study published last week in Nature Communications suggests that the opposite is true.

Ludmil Alexandrov, an author of the study and a professor of bioengineering and cellular and molecular medicine at UC San Diego, said, "If you look at the way these devices are presented, they are marketed as safe, with nothing to be concerned about. But to the best of our knowledge, no one has actually studied these devices and how they affect human cells at the molecular and cellular levels until now," (per Science Daily).

UVA rays causing damage to DNA and skin cells

During the study, researchers examined how isolated human and murine cells fared under UV light similar to that of a nail lamp used during a gel manicure (per Science Daily). They found that after just 20 minutes under the light, between 20-30% of the cells died. What's more, following three 20-minute sessions of exposure, a whopping 65-70% of the cells were subjected to cell death. Damage to DNA and mitochondria, as a result of the light exposure, was also reported — which researchers worry may contribute to skin cancer. In fact, study author Maria Zhivagu said that these recent findings were enough to put a stop to her regular gel manicure appointments (per "At this point, I would recommend or advise people to just weigh the risk. Understand what this is doing. There is damage at the DNA level. We don't know if it's carcinogenic," she said, according to NBC News.

While more research is needed to understand whether or not gel nail lamps increase the risk of skin cancer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urges people who make use of UV nail lamps to limit their exposure to 10-minute intervals and apply SPF 20 minutes before use.