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The Truth Behind UV Nail Dryers and Your Risk of Skin Cancer

If you ever get your nails done professionally, you probably know the benefits of dip powder or gel manicures. With these techniques, the polish on your nails lasts a long time and resists chipping or scratching. You don’t have to worry about messing up your nails when you pay the cashier or open your car door like you do with a traditional manicure.

These types of manicures typically use ultraviolet (UV) light to dry the polish. That’s because gel nail polish contains a chemical that needs to react with UV light to harden. While dip powder manicures do not require gel polish, nail technicians often use a clear coat of gel polish as the topcoat on a dip powder manicure.

When using these UV nail dryers, UV light strikes your nails and hits the skin alongside your nails and at the top of your fingers, too. There are serious types of skin cancer that can develop underneath the nails and cause nail plate changes. And although you may only be exposing your fingers to UV radiation for five minutes or so per manicure, UV light has been linked to skin cancer. So, do these types of manicures put you at risk?

We connected with Jordan Abbott, MD, a dermatologist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, to learn more about whether you might be increasing your odds of skin cancer with your choice of manicure. Here’s what she told us.

Do the UV lights that dry nail polish cause skin cancer?

“There have not been any studies showing that UV nail lamps are linked to skin cancers
in humans,” Dr. Abbott said. But that doesn’t mean the risk doesn’t exist. We know that UV light exposure from sunlight and UV light from tanning beds increases the risk for various types of skin cancer, including melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. “So, there is a theoretical risk that UV nail lamps could increase someone’s risk of skin cancer,” she said.

A recent study exposed cells in a petri dish to UV nail lamps. Testing the cells showed that they had DNA damage and mutations that would increase their risk of skin cancer. “But this study does not prove that UV lamps cause skin cancer, since cells in a petri dish are much more vulnerable than cells in the human body,” Dr. Abbott explained. “To date, there are no studies linking skin cancers in humans to nail lamp exposure.”

Researchers need to study people who use UV nail dryers and compare them to people who don’t for many years before they can confirm the actual risk. 

How can you take steps to reduce your risk of skin cancer at the salon?

To be safer, Dr. Abbott recommends wearing protective fingerless gloves with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) or applying sunscreen to your fingers and hands before you put them under the UV light. 

You can also avoid UV lamp exposure by choosing traditional manicures or dip manicures and letting your nails air dry. “Allowing nail polish to air dry or using an air blower or fan to accelerate the drying process is a safer alternative,” Dr. Abbott said. You can also choose nail stickers instead of polish. 

And you can lower your risk by getting your nails manicured less frequently—save manicures for special occasions like vacations and weddings rather than visiting the salon every two to three weeks. 

What about LED nail dryers?

LED nail-drying lights still emit UV radiation. “Like UV nail dryers, they pose a theoretical risk for skin cancer development,” Dr. Abbott said. 

The bottom line

No studies have proven that UV nail dryers are linked with an increased risk of skin cancer in people. Although those studies would take many years to complete, we do know that exposing your skin to UV radiation in other ways, like sunlight and tanning beds, increases your risk for skin cancer. So, if you want to play it safe, protect your skin at the nail salon with sunscreen or gloves, or choose manicures where you can let your nails air dry. 

Want to learn the best ways to protect your skin and reduce your risk of skin cancer? 

Schedule an appointment with a dermatologist.

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