How Much Skin Damage Can the UV Lamps We Use For Gel Manicures Really Cause?

Dermatologists explain whether or not the tool is a real risk.

UV Lamp
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One thing's for sure: after getting used to gel manicures, it's hard to go back to regular old (read: easily chippable) nail polish that isn't even guaranteed to last a full day. That said, since gel manicures require the use of a UV lamp in order to set the polish, they can be less-than-ideal when it comes to the actual health of the skin on your hands.

With that in mind, you may be wondering if the UV lamps are even necessary, and the answer is yes.

The UV rays help the gel polish polymerize, or harden, which is what makes the formula so durable, and dry so quickly. The problem is that these lamps, including the ones that claim to be LED-only, can potentially cause skin damage.

We spoke with two dermatologists to find out more, as well as share ways to protect your skin the next time you head to the salon.

What Makes UV Lamps Harmful?

"The light boxes at nail salons used to set nail polish emit UVA light, which is associated with causing damage to your skin," explains Dr. Stacy Chimento, a board-certified Miami-based dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology.

More specifically, Dr. Chimento explains that "UVA radiation can lead to premature wrinkles, age spots, and in extreme cases, skin cancer." She also adds that the problem with the LED lamps (which you may have seen marketed as "better for you") is that they can radiate light that's on the UVA spectrum, which still poses risks of photo-aging.

Since gel manicures have become so popular, you may have found yourself wondering if the UV rays emitted from those little lamps are actually strong enough to cause skin cancer. Dr. Kavita Mariwalla, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist, explains that though they may not be equivalent to sitting out in the sun unprotected, it's still important to exercise some caution.

"Although a weekly or twice a month gel manicure in and of itself likely won't cause skin cancer, if you are a regular and have been doing it for years and years then I think you may notice more freckling on your hands," she notes. "It is certainly not the same as going in a tanning bed, however."

What Are the Impacts of UV Lamps on Skin and Nails?

While gel nails may last much longer and be more durable than traditional polish, both Dr. Chimento and Dr. Mariwalla are wary about the process.

"I think gel manicures and artificial nails in general are not very healthy for your natural nails," says Dr. Mariwalla. "To the extent that those practices then cause you to put your hands under the lights, it becomes a bit of a not-so-healthy-all-the-time kind of habit."

Dr. Mariwalla also notes that getting gel manicures regularly can result in the skin on your hands aging faster and losing its elasticity more quickly than it normally would.

Dr. Chimento brings up the point that the acetone that is typically used in manicures can also cause your skin to dry out, making it all the more sensitive to UV rays. "If you take certain medications like doxycycline, you can increase your chances of burning your skin and separating the nail from the bed when combined with light," says Dr. Chimento.

The good news is, however, that the lamp itself won't cause harm to your nails. But the bad new is, the polish might.

"Your nails are protected by the thick coat of gel one is trying to cure with the UV lamps so in that sense I don't think those lamps damage the nails per se," explains Dr. Mariwalla. "But the actual gel and the acrylics certainly lead to thinning nail plates and can lead to nail infections and nail lifting if water gets underneath."

VIDEO: Here's How to Remove Gel Polish at Home

How Can I Limit My UV Light Exposure When I'm At the Nail Salon?

While Dr. Chimento notes that applying an SPF 30 sunscreen at least 20 minutes before placing your hands under the lamp would be effective, UV gloves would be a good alternative if you wanted to forgo slathering up before your mani.

"I think UV gloves with fingertip cutouts are great as is using sunscreen," says Dr. Mariwalla. "Using protection on your hands will prevent damage from happening to your skin."

The bottom line? Just remember that at the end of the day, you're still exposing your hands to UV rays repeatedly when you go in for gel manicures. So go ahead and think about either SPF, gloves, or limiting your gel manis to special occasions.

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