Do gel manicures increase cancer risk?

Ask the doctors


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Q.
I like gel manicures because the polish doesn't chip easily, but I've heard that they may cause cancer. Is this true?

A. The gel polish itself hasn't been associated with an increased risk of cancer. However, lamps and light boxes, which are used to seal the polish during professional manicures, have raised concern. That's because many emit fairly high levels of UVA radiation, which plays a major role in the development of cancer. The level of risk depends on the frequency of manicures. A 2014 study in JAMA Dermatology indicated that the level of UVA exposure associated with a gel manicure every two weeks probably isn't high enough to increase the risk of skin cancer significantly.

That said, there are things you can do to protect your hands from UVA exposure. Slather a waterproof sunscreen, SPF 30 or higher, on your hands before your manicure. You might also consider cutting the fingertips off a pair of gloves and wearing them when your nails are manicured.

It may also help to minimize your exposure to acetone — the solvent used to remove old gel polish — which can dry your skin and nails. Instead of dipping your fingers in the solution, try soaking cotton pads in acetone and applying them to your nails for 10 to 15 minutes.

If your nails are dry, it's also a good idea to take a break from nail polish for a week or two a few times a year. During those breaks, apply petroleum jelly or another moisturizer to your nails several times a day.

— by Hope Ricciotti, M.D., and Hye-Chun Hur, M.D., M.P.H.
Editors in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch