By Chris G. Adigun, MD, FAAD
The past decade has seen a surge in the popularity of gel manicures, which are valued for their appearance and durability. There are some risks associated with these manicures, however, including skin damage from the ultraviolet light used during the curing process. If a gel manicure is performed properly with UV protection, consumers can enjoy the benefits without experiencing negative effects.
The Benefits of Gel Manicures
Gel manicures have been around for a long time, but they have become more popular over the last 10 years, thanks to the development of polish formulas that are easier to apply and remove. Today, a gel manicure can be performed in nearly the same amount of time as a traditional manicure — with better results.
When applied properly, gel polish won’t chip in a few days like traditional nail polish does. As a result, a gel manicure provides the longevity and sturdiness of artificial nails without the upkeep or time commitment. Durability is the number-one benefit of a gel manicure. Plus, no other manicure has the high shine that you get with a gel.
A gel manicure can improve the appearance of anyone’s nails, but the attractive results may be especially beneficial to those whose nails are deformed or discolored because of disease or trauma. Regular nail polish may not adhere properly to a damaged nail or provide enough coverage to mask discoloration, she says, but a gel polish can do both, which makes gel manicures a good option for many patients with nail disorders. Nails are very visible, so disfigured or discolored nails can be really embarrassing for patients, making it difficult for them to work and socialize. For many patients, a gel manicure can be life-changing.
The Risks of Gel Manicures
Despite their benefits, gel manicures are not for everyone; weak or brittle nails may not be able to withstand a gel manicure, particularly the acetone used during the removal process. Because a UV lamp is required to harden gel polish and bind it to the nail, gel manicures are not appropriate for people who are highly sensitive to UV light; UV sensitivity may be increased by genetic factors, certain medical conditions, and the use of some medications and supplements.
UV exposure during gel manicures should be a concern for everyone, not just people who know they are especially UV-sensitive because the lamps used in these manicures emit UVA rays. Although these rays don’t burn the skin like UVB rays, they do penetrate the skin to damage DNA and collagen, which can lead to premature aging and may increase skin cancer risk. Some people believe that LED curing lamps provide a safer option, but this is a misconception, as these lamps also emit UVA light.
Although curing lamps are used for just a short period of time during a gel manicure, research indicates that the UV rays emitted by those lamps are four times stronger than the sun’s UV rays.1 Moreover, some customers get gel manicures quite frequently, and the repeated UV exposure may have a cumulative effect, especially in people who start getting gel manicures at a young age. The UV dose that you receive during a gel manicure is brief, but it’s intense. Over time, this intense exposure can add up to cause skin damage.
Other risks of a gel manicure include physical damage to the nail or separation of the nail plate from the nail bed, both of which may result from improper curing. The acetone used to remove gel polish may dry out the nail, but attempting to remove the polish by physical means like scraping or chipping can cause damage, so it’s important to ensure that a gel manicure is applied and removed properly.
The Proper Precautions
In order to get the best results from a gel manicure, it’s essential to use the correct polish with the correct curing lamp for the correct amount of time. Different curing lamps are designed for use with different polish formulas, so those who perform gel manicures at home should stick to the polishes that are appropriate for their curing lamp of choice. Those who utilize at-home gel manicure kits also should be sure to follow all instructions carefully, particularly in regard to curing time.
Ultimately, the guidelines that govern the safe use of UV curing lamps could be improved to better protect consumers. In an ideal world, every salon would provide customers with a safe solution to protect their hands and fingers from UV radiation during a gel manicure. Until that solution exists, however, customers should be proactive about UV protection.
I recommend the use fingerless gloves or a similar garment with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor of 50 and wear them for every gel manicure; but, customers should be aware that UPF fabric becomes a less effective form of protection with each wash. Alternative UV protection options include cutting the fingertips off a pair of dark, opaque gloves or applying a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor of 30 or higher at least 15 minute before a gel manicure. Sunscreen may interfere with gel polish application, however, so keep sunscreen off the nails, which provide their own natural UV protection.
The Final Word
A gel manicure can give your nails a great, long-lasting look, as long as it is performed properly and you protect your hands from the UV curing light. If you’re concerned about UV exposure or the health of your nails, talk to a board-certified dermatologist.
1 Curtis J, Tanner P, Judd C, Childs B, Hull C, Leachman S. Acrylic nail curing UV lamps: high-intensity exposure warrants further research of skin cancer risk. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2013 Dec;69(6):1069-70
Headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill., the American Academy of Dermatology, founded in 1938, is the largest, most influential, and most representative of all dermatologic associations. With a membership of more than 18,000 physicians worldwide, the Academy is committed to: advancing the diagnosis and medical, surgical and cosmetic treatment of the skin, hair and nails; advocating high standards in clinical practice, education, and research in dermatology; and supporting and enhancing patient care for a lifetime of healthier skin, hair and nails. For more information, contact the Academy at 1-888-462-DERM (3376) or www.aad.org. Follow the Academy on Facebook(American Academy of Dermatology), Twitter (@AADskin) or YouTube (AcademyofDermatology).