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Gel manicures | Are these safe?

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Photo: Wix

What is a Gel Manicure?

Gel manicures have gained significant popularity in recent years. The popularity is based on the long-lasting quality of manicures making it possible to change polish less frequently. The initial steps of the manicure are the same as with traditional nail polish. However, instead of polish gel color is applied that needs to cure or harden under UV light or LED light. The oligomers making up the gel polish polymerize under light and are more resistant to chipping or fading. To remove the gel polish, the nails are soaked in acetone.

Are there any risks associated with using UV light to cure gel nail polish?

Gel manicures may require the use of ultraviolet (UV) light to cure the nail polish. This has been the source of some controversy out of concerns about the potential for UV light to trigger the development of skin cancer.
Interestingly, however, the type of UV light used for gel manicures tends to be UVA light. UVA has been linked to premature aging of the skin but not necessarily directly to the development of skin cancers. UVB is linked to skin cancer development.



Have there been increases in the risk of skin cancer associated with gel polish?

However, indirectly UVA light through thinning of the skin may predispose an individual to be at a potentially higher risk for skin cancer development. That being said, a recently published review has found no evidence in the medical literature of an increased risk of skin cancer. Of course, skin cancer development may be delayed by decades after UV exposure and gel manicures. Gel nail polish has been around since the 1980s but its use has been more widespread in the past 10-15 years.

Are there steps to take to reduce the risk of skin cancer from a gel manicure?

It is never unreasonable to take the added step to wear sunscreen on the hands prior to placing them under UV light. Lessening the risk of the development of lentigines or sunspots as well as thinning of the skin as a result of UVA exposure can be beneficial. I find in practice that many people are bothered by the aging of the skin of the hands simply because we can see our hands and these can reveal our age! Alternatively wearing gloves with fingertips removed is also reasonable.

Options to consider to reduce exposure to UV light during gel manicures

​Wear sunscreen on the hands prior to placing under UV light

​Wear gloves with fingertips removed

Are there any other risks associated with gel manicures?

A review published in 2020 looked at self-reported side effects associated with gel manicures. Here is a summary of the overall findings of this study.
Both allergic contact dermatitis and irritant contact dermatitis to methacrylates in gel nail polish resulted in side effects in the majority of people using these products. These side effects included:
  • Itching

  • Lip swelling (from touching lips with polished nails)

  • Chapped lips (cheilitis)

  • Eczema around nails and over other parts of the body

  • Paresthesias of fingers (numbness and tingling sensations)

  • Nail thinning

  • Brittle nails

  • White spots on the nails

Also when gauging blood oxygen levels using a pulse oximetry unit on fingertips, patients with gel manicures had artificially inflated values. This means that for those experiencing hypoxia, there may be delays in the diagnosis if measured through gel nail polish.

Are there any benefits to gel manicures?

Interestingly, in practice, I have found a benefit noted in the use of gel manicures by a specific group of patients. I have some patients that deal with pruritus (tendency towards itching) or prurigo (tendency toward itchy nodules or bumps in the skin). Gel manicures result in a dull or softened fingernail edge. This makes it more difficult to dig into the skin or causes real damage to the skin with scratching. Some of my patients find this a deterrent to itching excessively.

Are gel manicures safe to get?

Gel manicures are overall safe. Although thinning of the nail plate or damage to the nail can occur from removing the polish, overall the long-lasting effects of gel nail polish require less frequent removal.

Having the nail technician apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen to the hands prior to applying nail polish is perhaps the best method of protecting their skin. Use of nitrile gloves with fingertips cut out or draping a towel over the hands leaving the fingernail uncovered can also help.


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