Study Highlights Potential Skin Cancer Risk of UV Nail Polish Dryers

Toral Vaidya, MD, MPH

April 05, 2023

Dr Shari Lipner

Results of a study recently published in Nature Communications suggests that radiation from ultraviolet (UV) nail polish dryers could induce cell death and trigger molecular changes linked to cancer in human cells. According to two experts, these findings raise concerns regarding the safety of frequent use of these nail dryers.

In the study, human and mouse cells were exposed to radiation from UV nail dryers. Exposing human and mice skin cells to UVA light for 20 minutes resulted in the death of 20%-30% of cells; three consecutive 20-minute sessions resulted in the death of 65%-70% of cells. Additionally, surviving cells suffered oxidative damage to their DNA and mitochondria, with mutational patterns similar to those seen in skin cancer, reported study investigator Maria Zhivagui, PhD, of the University of California, San Diego, and associates.  

"This study showed that irradiation of human and mouse cell lines using UV nail polish dryers resulted in DNA damage and genome mutations," Shari Lipner, MD, PhD, director of the Nail Division at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York City, said in an interview. The study "ties together exposure to UV light from nail polish dryers and genetic mutations that are associated with skin cancers," added Lipner, who was not involved with the study.

UV nail lamps are commonly used to dry and harden gel nail polish formulas. Often referred to as "mini tanning beds," these devices emit UVA radiation, classified as a Group 1 Carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

"Both UVA and UVB are main drivers of both melanoma and keratinocyte carcinomas (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma)," said Anthony Rossi, MD, a dermatologic surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, who was also not a study investigator. UV irradiance "produces DNA mutations that are specific to forming types of skin cancer," he said in an interview.

UVA wavelengths commonly used in nail dryers can penetrate all layers of the epidermis, the top layer of the skin, potentially affecting stem cells in the skin, according to the study.

Lipner noted that "there have been several case reports of patients with histories of gel manicures using UV nail polish dryers who later developed squamous cell carcinomas on the dorsal hands, fingers, and nails, and articles describing high UV emissions from nail polish dryers, but the direct connection between UV dryers and skin cancer development was tenuous." The first of its kind, the new study investigated the impact of UV nail drying devices at a cellular level, she said.

Dr Anthony Rossi

The results of this study, in combination with previous case reports suggesting the development of skin cancers following UVA dryer use, raise concern regarding the safety of these commonly used devices. The study, the authors write, "does not provide direct evidence for an increased cancer risk in human beings," but their findings and "prior evidence strongly suggest that radiation emitted by UV nail polish dryers may cause cancers of the hand and that UV nail polish dryers, similar to tanning beds, may increase the risk of early onset skin cancer."

Rossi said that "while this study shows that the UV exposure does affect human cells and causes mutations, the study was not done in vivo, in human beings, so further studies are needed to know at what dose and frequency gel manicures would be needed to cause detrimental effects." However, for people who regularly receive gel manicures involving UV nail dryers, both Lipner and Rossi recommend applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen to protect the dorsal hands, fingertips, and skin surrounding the nails, or wearing UV-protective gloves.

The study was supported by an Alfred B. Sloan Research Fellowship to one of the authors and grants from the National Institutes of Health to two authors. One author reported being a compensated consultant and having an equity interest in io9. Lipner and Rossi have reported no relevant financial relationships.

Nat Commun. 2023;14:276. Full text

Toral Vaidya, MD, MPH is a dermatology resident physician at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

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