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Can’t We Do Self-Care Without Risking Cancer?

By March 6, 2024March 12th, 2024General

It looks as if another one of our efforts for self-care is under fire for presenting a heightened risk of cancer: gel manicures. Yikes, we love our nails! (Also, think chemical hair straighteners and talcum powder.)

Groundbreaking research from the University of California San Diego (published January 2023), found a strong link between high-dose exposure to ultraviolet rays emitted from lightboxes used to dry gel nail polish and skin cancer of the fingers, toes, nails, and under nail beds.

C’Mon. What’s The Problem?

Gel polishes contain polymers that are activated by light; the polymers absorb light. After each coat, the polish must be dried and cured by ultraviolet light rays. Without UV or LED light, the polish would stay wet for 100 years.

Gel nail polish isn’t the issue.  Rather, the issue is gel nail dryers that use concentrated emissions of UV light. It’s the UV drying and curing that can accelerate cell mutation because the lightboxes emit manmade UV-A waves that are arguably more damaging to the skin than natural UV rays (UV-A and B combined).

UV-A rays have longer wavelengths and can reach cells deeper in the skin, affecting DNA. But the manufacturers of these drying devices have marketed them as “safe, with nothing to be concerned about,” according to Ludmil Alexandrov, professor of cellular and molecular medicine at UC San Diego.

New Research Says UV Nail Dryers Are Not Safe.

Scientists have lately pounced on nail cancer risk relative to UV exposure encountered with nail dryers –  because more cases of women who get gel manicures, especially routinely, are reporting diagnoses of squamous carcinoma and acral melanoma (nail cancer).

Maria Zhivagui, a postdoctoral scholar working at UC San Diego’s Alexandrov Lab and the study’s first author, was a longtime fan of gel manicures but swore off them after seeing the results.

During a gel manicure, nails are exposed to 7-10 minutes of artificial UV-A radiation. UC San Diego researchers exposed healthy mouse and human skin cells in the lab to 20-minute intervals of this radiation in lightboxes like those used by salons.

After a single round, 20%-30% of cells died. After three repeat 20-minute rounds, 65%-70% of cells died. And those still alive started behaving abnormally – growing larger, asymmetrical, and sluggish (signs of mutation).

Cell death is a natural process. “But it can be bad if too many cells die or if the wrong cells die,” said Dr. Melissa Owens, co-author of the UCSD study. Here, we mean chronic cell damage to healthy cells that can cause mutation.

Miss Illinois 2018 is A Tragic Example.

Karolina Jasko was a teen beauty queen in Illinois, winning the Miss Illinois crown in 2018 and later competing in the Miss Universe pageant. She’d had dozens of gel manicures throughout high school.

In April 2020 (she was then 21), her manicurist was removing the old gel polish when Karolina spotted a weird black line under her thumbnail. By the next week, it was swollen and painful.

The doctor gave her the shocking news – it was acral melanoma (nail cancer). Jasko required surgery where doctors removed the entire nail and replaced it with graft skin from her groin, leaving a permanent scar. She had no family history of cancer.

Please Use Caution!

Any current research available on the subject (Harvard, University of Utah Health, Ohio State University), stresses the importance of taking precautions during a gel manicure. Here’s what to do:

  • If you must continue doing gel manicures, wear fingerless gloves or toeless socks. You can cut the fingers out of disposable latex gloves, but even that won’t protect your fingers and nails. Ditto for toeless socks. (FYI: just remember that this will not protect you from cancer.)
  • Apply SPF 30 or higher, preferably 50, sunscreen on hands and feet 20 minutes before a gel manicure, saturating fingers, toes, and cuticles.
  • Hold off on cutting cuticles; they’re a direct portal to the bloodstream.
  • Limit exposure. Save gel manicures for special occasions or…
  • Consider switching to dip manicures, which are also long-lasting. The powder is not activated by light or dependent on UV to dry and harden.

What Else You Need to Know.

More investigation is underway to confirm the direct relationship between frequent exposure to UV nail dryers and nail cancer; and to determine how often is “frequent.” This means more extended research testing human skin cells.

At this point, the current literature confirms that more exposure = more risk.

Now that you know, you can decide whether to limit exposure or choose another kind of long-lasting manicure like powder dip, which does not require UV light to activate and doesn’t require UV light to dry and seal.

We understand this all sounds really scary – but it’s essential that women stay informed. But if the worst happened and you are suffering from cancer after getting a gel manicure, we want to help you.