Can a Manicure Increase Skin Cancer Risk?

Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, MD


August 20, 2014

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Hello. I'm Dr. Sandra Fryhofer. Welcome to Medicine Matters. The topic: Nail salons and ultraviolet A (UVA) exposure risk. Now I don't mean tanning salons -- I mean nail salons, UVA risk, and a new research letter in JAMA Dermatology.[1] Here's why it matters.

The women watching know what I'm talking about. For you men out there, let me explain. Most women love to get manicures. I sure do. I'm not talking about sculpted artificial nails. I'm talking about getting your nails polished.

We now have 2 choices: a regular manicure or a gel manicure. In a regular manicure, regular nail polish is applied, which can take up to an hour to dry on its own. That is why many salons offer special nail fans that blow air and emit UVA light to speed the drying process.

The newest craze is the gel manicure. It's more durable. It doesn't chip as easily, and it lasts twice as long. Instead of polish, a coat of colored gel is applied and then dried using UVA light. For gel manicures, the UVA light is mandatory.

UVA light is the same kind of light used in tanning beds. UVA light exposure can increase the risk for skin cancer and skin aging. In fact, in 2009, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported 2 healthy middle-aged women who had been exposed to UV nail lights and subsequently developed skin cancers on the back of their hands.[2] So the concern has been out there.

This new study in JAMA Dermatology goes a step further. It looked at 17 different light sources from 16 different nail salons and measured UVA exposure for a single visit. It also studied exposure from 5 different hand positions within each device. The results, the amount of UVA radiation exposure, differed greatly from device to device and also from position to position within the device.

Although the total amount of UVA exposure per visit is low, understand that many women, including me, get weekly manicures. So after multiple manicure visits, UVA exposure adds up. As few as 8 visits using higher-wattage lamps are enough to cause skin damage.

The author's advice? If you go under the nail lights, apply sunscreen to the back of your hand or wear UVA protective gloves to lower skin cancer risk and prevent skin aging. Or, do as I do: No gel manicures, and opt out of the light. Instead, bring your iPad, read, relax, maybe get a foot massage, and sit back for at least 30 minutes while you dry and enjoy.

For Medicine Matters, I'm Dr. Sandra Fryhofer.


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