Are Gel Manicures Safe?

By: Lisa Tep / Sesen Spa

A recent study published in the Nature Communications Journal on January 17, 2023, has led to questions among our client base, and across the area at large, about the safety of gel manicures. As such, I did a deep dive into the study in an effort to better understand the data. I found a study that,
by the researchers’ own admissions, included limitations that prevented them from producing sufficient evidence to draw solid conclusions. The negative press generated by this inconclusive research and echoed by some major media outlets have created more questions than answers regarding the safety of gel manicures, which I believe are
not clearly and conclusively backed by science.
During their study, researchers employed a 54-W UV nail drying machine that emits UV photons via 6 bulbs during the gel polish curing process. They exposed human and murine (mice) cells to acute and chronic exposure in order to evaluate the DNA damage and other effects of UV radiation emitted by a gel polish UV curing lamp. For their purposes, acute exposure was defined as 20 minutes, twice
a day, within a single day. Chronic exposure was defined as 20 minutes per day for 3 consecutive days. All non-control, tested cells showed varying levels of cell death, oxidative and DNA damage. Researchers acknowledge at least 3 important limitations of their experiments:

Tested cells were missing the cornified layer of the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin that can absorb much of the UV irradiation).

In-vitro systems can experience different mutations than those that occur in normal human skin.

The mutations found in the study do not provide direct information on skin carcinogenesis in human populations.

Given the limitations of this study, it is my opinion that the results are inconclusive. I commend the researchers for their effort in trying to determine whether or not dangers truly exist when using UV gel polish curing lamps. As a spa owner and wellness practitioner, the last thing I want to do is to provide a service that is harmful to my clients!
But, in addition to the limitations that the researchers have themselves acknowledged, there are questions about the study’s parameters:

Exposure duration: Why did the researchers choose to
irradiate for 20 minutes? They note in the study that, in a real-life scenario, client’s hands are under the lamp for up to 10 minutes (5 minutes per hand). So why did they choose to expose the test samples to twice the normal time? Moreover, in the acute exposure testing scenario, the researchers irradiated the test samples for 20 minutes, twice in a single day. Not only is 20 minutes twice the normal exposure time in a single salon setting, but 40 minutes of exposure doesn’t occur in a single gel manicure appointment?

In the chronic exposure testing scenario, the researchers irradiated the test samples for three consecutive days (again 20-minute sessions). To the best of my knowledge, clients don’t subject themselves to gel polish manicures for 3 consecutive days. Rather, regular gel polish manicure clients are seen every two to three weeks (and their hands are exposed for up to 10 minutes max, not 20).

Lamp selection: The concern over UV exposure in gel manicures is not a new topic. The professional nail care industry, many years ago, moved away from UV curing lamps and, instead, opted for LED light curing devices. Despite a lack of concrete evidence that UV curing lamps posed an increased danger for skin cancer, the industry pivoted to a different technology altogether. UV curing lamps are still available and used, but many salons and spas have opted for LED curing instead (which is not mentioned or tested in the study at all).

Clients ask me all the time – which service will be the least damaging to their natural nails – gel, builder gel, dip or acrylic, etc? My response is ALWAYS the same – if your primary concern is about the health of your natural nails, you should stay away from all of them (even regular polish). Get regular manicures, buff your nails and use cuticle oil every day, all day long. I’m not in the business of convincing clients to get a service so I can make an extra buck. Our approach, at Sesen, has been to make gel manicures as safe as possible based on the most current and available science. When there was concern over UV gel curing lamps,
we immediately switched to LED curing devices. We’ve implemented changes to our protocol –

In the end, clients should review the science, consider their own personal health factors and make a decision based on that data. Whether you opt for a gel polish manicure or not, the decision is entirely personal. Curious
about the science, data and research? Head over to our blog because I’ve got links to all the studies in my blog post. The FDA even has a nifty video for you to watch and tips on how to stay safe during nailcare services.

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