Let's start with the basics: Just what are gel nails? They are a thin, flexible, and natural-looking fake nail. The gel nail process is simple. First, natural nails are cleaned and shaped. Whether this is done professionally or at home, the goal is to use clean nail tools and make sure cuticles are kept intact to prevent infection. Gel nails require four layers: First a base coat gel is applied followed by two layers of gel nail polish and finished off with a gel top coat. Between each layer curing, or hardening, of the gel occurs under a UV or LED nail lamp. That's the part people have issues with: the nail lamp and its supposed cancer-causing rays.
Citing statements made in a press release issued by the American Academy of Dermatology, CBS ran a story titled "Gel Manicures May Lead to Nail Problems and Potential Skin Cancer Risk, Dermatologist Warns" earlier this year. In it, CBS quoted a statement Dr. Chris Adigun, assistant professor of dermatology at The Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU School of Medicine, said in a press release from the American Academy of Dermatology. "In general, any manicure left in place for an extended period of time is not a good idea because you are not seeing what is going on underneath the nail polish," said Adigun. "As is the case with most things, moderation is the key when it comes to gel manicures."
But despite the sensational article title, it turns out that most dermatologists aren't overly concerned that gel-nail lovers will all end up with skin cancer. We contacted Dr. Adigun, who states that there is minimal risk of cancer from the UV lamps. “It’s a very low risk,” Adigun said. “Unfortunately, it’s difficult to quantify because people have different skin types. It’s hard to translate that from one person to the next.”
UV lamps emit a low amount of UV rays. So low, in fact, that it would take 250 years’ worth of weekly gel manicures to create skin cancer, according to a study on the safety of UV lamps in 2012. But it's always better to be safe than sorry. If you are a frequent UV-indulger, you may want to take some steps to reduce the amount of UV exposure you get during treatments. To prevent skin damage, Adigun suggests coating your hands in sunscreen or wearing sun protective gloves with the fingertips snipped off.
As for the other lamps used to cure gel nails, LED (light emitting diodes) lamps use the same lights used in your digital alarm clock or in stop lights or your TV screen. If people can get cancer from those lights, then we may have to cut back on episodes of Grey’s.
There is one pertinent risk regarding gel nails. “It has to do with the cosmetic changes of the skin,” Adigun says. It’s under the nail that we have to worry about. The skin covered by the gel nails, or even polish, prevents us from detecting early signs of skin infections or cancers.
Adigun suggests taking a break from nail enhancements to not only lower the already low risk of cancer, but to also prevent any fungal infections and to bring your nails back to their natural state. During the two week period of high gloss and fancy nails, the nail plate wears out. “There have been studies done of before and after that gel nails thins the nail,” Adigun said. “We don’t know which step in the process proves this, or if it’s the gel nail chemical.”
One step in the gel nail process that is known to cause brittle nails is the acetone bath the nails must soak in for removal. To regain nail strength, Adigun suggests giving your nails a break from any sealant and to moisturize as often as possible. Using a cuticle moisturizer or applying Aquafor healing ointment will help.
For those of you steering clear of gel nails because of all the hype surrounding the UV nail lamps, you can stop your stressin’. The only real worries regarding gel nails can be easily prevented by ensuring that clean nail tools and supplies are used, that you’re cautious with cuticle care, and are using plenty of sunscreen during the curing process. So, if you want to spruce up your nails for that weekend getaway or family vacation, go for it. Just remember that your nails need a vacation from all that special treatment.