Is It Safe To Use A UV Nail Polish Dryer?

Unlike regular nail polish that can begin to chip and fade within a matter of days, gel nails can weather the wear and tear of everyday use for a matter of weeks. We can think of gel nails like a three-layer cake. Made up of a base coat, nail polish, and top coat, our nails are set to "bake" between each layer under a UV light for a couple of minutes in order to dry. Just like that, you have a bright and shiny new set of nails to show off.

While a UV nail polish dryer is a key component in the gel manicure process, there hasn't been much research done over the years about the effects it may or may not have on human health. "If you look at the way these devices are presented, they are marketed as safe, with nothing to be concerned about," said professor Ludmil Alexandrov in a UC San Diego Today press release. "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." Alexandrov is the corresponding author of a recent 2023 study published in Nature Communications looking at the effects of UV nail polish dryers on skin cells.

UV nail polish dryers may increase one's risk of skin cancer

The inspiration for the study came after Alexandrov learned of a young beauty pageant contestant with a rare type of skin cancer which had developed on her finger. The study team used two types of human skin cells, as well as a sample of mouse cells, and subjected them to two different UV light exposure scenarios. In one scenario, the cells spent 20 minutes inside the UV light device and were then removed for an hour before undergoing a second 20-minute round of exposure. In the second scenario, cells only underwent one 20-minute round of UV light exposure, but did so once a day for a total of three days.

Regardless of whether the cells underwent acute exposure or chronic UV light exposure, cell damage, cell death, and DNA mutations were observed in both instances. More specifically, the observed DNA mutations resembled those found in patients with skin cancer. As written in the research, the study team notes that these findings suggest a possible link between the use of UV nail polish dryers and a greater risk for early-onset skin cancer — particularly in the hands.

Can you enjoy gel nails safely?

First author of the study Maria Zhivagui stated in the press release how she herself opted out of any further use of gel nails upon learning that DNA mutations and cell death took place in the immediate aftermath of just one 20-minute UV light session, as much as 30%. Furthermore, findings also showed that three consecutive 20-minute sessions in the nail polish dryer resulted in up to 70% cell death.

However, the researchers emphasize that the study only illustrates correlation, not causation. Far larger longitudinal studies would need to be completed before a definitive relationship could be confirmed amongst the public.

Yet some experts say this doesn't necessarily mean one has to swear off gel nails entirely. Instead, consider implementing some protective measures during your next manicure appointment. In particular, Dr. Shari Lipner, dermatologist and director of the Nail Division at Weill Cornell Medicine, tells NPR that gel-nail fans can add significant protection by utilizing sunscreen and fingerless gloves during their session. Even more, consider scaling back on how frequently you visit the salon throughout the year.

Is it safer to use an LED nail lamp?

If you're looking for a safer, gel-nail drying alternative, you might think that an LED lamp would better help protect oneself from potential skin damage. Although there are LED lamps out there that do not give off UV radiation, this kind of LED lamp unfortunately wouldn't get the job done when it comes to your manicure (via The Washington Post). Dr. Chris Adigun, a dermatologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and specialist in nail disorders, tells Today that gel nails require UVA exposure in order to cure (or dry). "So if there's no UVA, there is no gel manicure," Dr. Adigun tells the news outlet.

Furthermore, although our nails require less time underneath an LED lamp compared to a UV nail polish dryer, that doesn't necessarily mean that these devices are safer. Rather, the UVA ray exposure we get from an LED lamp is more powerful than that emitted from a standard UV lamp. Not only that, but the intensity of UVA rays from LED lamps trumps that of the sun itself.