Dear Daniela: Can UV Nail Lamps Give You Skin Cancer?

Photographed by Jones
Dear Daniela,
I love getting a gel manicure every few weeks (shellac is life) but I heard someone say something about the lamps being possibly hazardous for your skin. I guess it makes sense that if tanning beds increase your risk of skin cancer, the UV lamps could do too? Please help!
Jenny, 26
As someone who is evangelical about the necessity of sunscreen to the point of always having the 'truck driver sun damage' Google Image tab open on my phone in case I need to fight my corner, I love this letter! It’s great to know that I’m not the only one obsessing over these things when I should be having a nice quiet drink at the pub.
You’re right that tanning beds are shockingly bad for your skin, both in terms of exponentially increasing your risk of skin cancer, and also on an aesthetic level (a tan might look nice now, but UV light will ravage all your lovely youth-boosting collagen and elastin faster than you can say "golden brown"). For anyone unfamiliar with gel manicures, instead of air-drying the polish as normal, gel polishes are 'cured' under a UV light which makes them dry almost instantly and last up to two weeks.
A definitive answer is above my pay grade, so I called in consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk for some advice: "While there is no doubt that tanning beds increase the risk of skin cancer, current evidence on the carcinogenic risk of UV nail lamps is variable and controversial," she told R29. There are a few studies floating around out there. One I’ve read suggests that a biweekly gel manicure is only equivalent to an extra 17 seconds a day outside, but quite often, the studies are produced or paid for by people who have connections to nail care brands, which obviously puts a question mark against their neutrality.
Dr Kluk agrees: "Some studies suggest that the risk is clinically significant and there have been a small number of case reports linking the use of UV nail lamps to the development of skin cancer on the hand, while other studies have concluded that the exposure risk is negligible and that thousands of individuals would need to use one of these lamps regularly for one to develop a squamous cell carcinoma (a type of skin cancer) on the back of the hand."
There’s also just not that much research yet – searching for tanning bed studies on the US National Library of Medicine database, which aggregates clinical trials, brings up some 579 studies; searching for various keywords around gel manicures brings up 24 at best. Plus, as Dr Kluk pointed out: "A further challenge is that there are a multitude of different brands using different types of bulbs."
Overall, we’re not yet at a point where we can say definitively. However, I’m a big believer that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and I think where UV damage is concerned, that pound becomes a tonne. Dr Kluk agreed: "The bottom line is that we don’t yet know for sure whether exposure from typical use of these lamps, for example less than five minutes twice per month, does actually increase the risk of skin cancer and until then, caution must be advised." She continued: "There’s no UK guidance so far, but Skin Cancer Foundation in the USA and the American Academy of Dermatology recommend that prior to a gel manicure, clients should apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen to the hands."
Considering that it’s that or some Ash Ketchum-style fingerless gloves, I’d go for the SPF.
Got a question for our resident beauty columnist Daniela Morosini? No problem, qualm or dilemma is too big, small or niche. Email, including your name and age for a chance to have your question answered. All letters to ‘Dear Daniela’ become the property of Refinery29 and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

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