Nail Salon Lamps May Raise Skin Cancer Risk

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.


A salon manicure often involves drying freshly painted nails under a lamp that emits ultraviolet (UV) rays while blowing air at one’s fingertips to dry the polish. Most of us have not been aware of any risk associated with using these devices. However, a new study indicates that nail salon dryers which use UV light to dry nail polish and harden a gel manicure emit varying levels of radiation that can lead to premature aging and damage of skin in as few as 8 visits to the manicurist.

The nail dryers emit primarily ultraviolet-A (UVA) light, a spectrum of light long linked to skin cancers and the same light used in tanning beds. Gel manicures have become popular because they create long-lasting, shiny nails by means of a chemical gel that is painted on the nail in layers and cured under UV light after every coating.

Case reports of 2 women who developed squamous cell skin cancers on their hands have suggested an association between cancer and the UV nail light devices. However, most doctors assume the risk is probably low.

In the study, researchers from Georgia Regents University in Augusta conducted a random sampling of 17 different UV nail lamps found in 16 nail salons to determine how much UV radiation is being emitted when clients dry their nails under the lights. High-tech meters were used to measure the UVA light exposure upon hands held in various positions under the drying lamps.

The study, published this week as a research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Dermatology, found wide variation in the dose of UVA light emitted during 8 minutes of nail drying or hardening. The dose, measured in joules per centimeter squared, ranged from less than 1 to 8.

According to Dr. Lyndsay R. Shipp, the study’s lead author and a postgraduate resident in the Department of Dermatology at the university’s Medical College of Georgia, the amount of UV light exposure coming out of these devices varies greatly, ranging from “barely” to “significant.”

DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer is known to occur at around 60 joules per centimeter squared. None of the nail lamps came close to that number. However, the researchers estimated that for most of the lamps tested, 8 to 14 visits over 24 to 42 months would reach the threshold for DNA damage to the skin.

The study authors note that the “risk from multiple manicure visits remains untested,” but the findings suggests that “even with numerous exposures, the risk for carcinogenesis remains small.” Dr. Shipp said, “There is a theoretical risk, but it’s very low.” One’s health and immune status, prior exposure to other chemicals, age at time of exposure, and amount of time spent under the UV light can all influence a person’s risk of cancer.

As expected, lamps with higher-wattage bulbs emitted the highest levels of UV radiation, but it would not be easy for a salon client to check the wattage before using a machine. Dr. Shipp said she sometimes uses a nail lamp every couple of months and will continue to do so, noting that “you can get that amount of exposure when driving down the road in your car.”

Dr. Chris Adigun, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, warns clients to wear some form of UV protection when using salon drying lamps and notes that this study has “exposed an issue that needs to be addressed — that there is little to no regulation on the manufacturing of these nail lamps.” “As a result, the bulbs, wattage, and irradiance of these lamps varies dramatically from one manufacturer to the next, and individuals utilizing these lamps in salons have no way of knowing just how much UV exposure their skin is receiving upon each manicure.”

Even though the study found the overall risk of skin cancer from UV lamps to be low, “there are reports of nonmelanoma skin cancers on the hands after UV nail lamp exposure,” Dr. Adigun added. “What this article addresses is the lack of regulation of these lamps, leading to potentially varied malignancy risk from lamp to lamp and salon to salon.”

Clients who are concerned about the risk but want to continue getting gel manicures, which require UV light, have a few options. They can skip the lotion-and-massage portion of the manicure and instead coat their hands with sunscreen before having gel nails applied. Another option is to wear UV-protective gloves with the fingertips cut off so only the nails are exposed to the light.

Users of regular nail polish should try fans or air-drying in order to avoid the devices.

Remember, the less often you have a manicure or pedicure the better. Nail polish, polish remover, and nail gels often contain pthalates and endocrine disruptors.

  1. Chris Adigun, M.D., Assistant Professor, Dermatology, Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology, NYU Langone Medical Center, New York City; JAMA Dermatology, April 30, 2014, online.
  2. “Nail Salon’ Drying Lamps Carry Small Cancer Risk.” HealthDay News. 04/30/14.
  3. Pope, Tara Parker-Pope. “UV Light of Nail Dryers Can Imperil Skin, Study Finds.”  The New York Times. page: A-14. 05/01/14.
  4. Pope, Tara Parker-Pope. “Nail Salon Lamps May Increase Skin Cancer Risk.” The New York Times: Well-Cancer. 04/30/14.

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