A board-certified dermatologist said doctors still don't know the risks UV lamps used for gel manicures pose.
Gel manicures only expose the skin to UV light for a short time, but frequent exposure may have long-term consequences.
The dermatologist said to wear sunscreen and fingerless gloves to limit your UV light exposure.
Bring sunscreen to the salon, one of the country's leading dermatologists suggests.
Dr. Melissa Piliang, a board-certified dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, said the ultraviolet (UV) lamps used to dry gel manicures could pose a small, but existent, threat to your skin health.
Ultraviolet light exposure from the sun and devices like tanning beds is known to damage skin cells, which can lead to an increased risk of cancer and premature aging.
Nail technicians use UV light to dry gel manicures, during which a type of acrylic bonds to the nail so that the polish stays on for longer.
Salon goers place their hand under a UV lamp for about 10 minutes, causing a chemical reaction that causes the gel polish to harden. Regular manicures just use cool air from a fan to dry the polish.
Given the rise of this type of manicure over the last two decades, researchers have been studying whether UV light exposure during a salon visit poses a health risk.
Though researchers aren't yet sure what the risk of gel manicures is to your skin, Piliang said it would be wise to be proactive and take measures to protect yourself anyway. The doctor brings sunscreen and fingerless gloves whenever she heads to the salon for a gel manicure, and only goes for special occasions - and suggests you do the same.
"The ultraviolet light from those little machines in the nail salon produce UV light just like the sun and the tanning beds, and thereby could potentially increase risk of skin cancer," Piliang told Insider.
Researchers do not know how risky UV lamps are
A new study published earlier this month in Nature found UV lamps used for gel manicures can damage skin cell DNA after 20 minutes of exposure three days in a row.
Piliang said she was not surprised by the results of the study, since any type of UV exposure is known to harm skin cells. But the study did not account for various layers of skin that protect the body from UV damage.
Though the study was the first to show gel manicure lamps can damage skin cells, researchers told The Washington Post they cannot conclude UV light from manicures can lead to cancer based on the data. Similarly, a previous study published in JAMA in 2014 suggested the carcinogenic risk from UV lamps is too small to stop people from getting their nails done.
But UV exposure from repeated gel manicures can add up. Piliang said the carcinogenic effects of UV exposure are long-term - meaning exposure during gel manicures (and from the sun), even when you're a teenager, could carry through with you into adulthood.
"I would go as infrequently as you can," Piliang said. "If you wanna do it for a special occasion, like a wedding once or twice a year, that's probably way less risky than going every two weeks."
Consider bringing fingerless gloves and sunscreen to the nail salon
Applying sunscreen to your fingers and hands can help protect them from UV exposure.
When choosing which sunscreen to apply, Piliang said to be aware of the two types available: one is a chemical barrier that absorbs light from the sun, and another, commonly called mineral sunscreen, is a physical barrier containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that prevents the sun from reaching the skin.
The physical barrier sunscreen takes a shorter time to take effect, so they're a better option for this application. Salon goers can ask the technician to apply the lotion prior to nail painting, the dermatologist said.
Another option is to wear fingerless gloves with UV protection, which "significantly diminish" the amount of skin exposed to UV light. Amazon sells these gloves for around $30.
The same precautions should be taken by those doing a DIY gel manicure. At-home UV lamps are a popular, more cost-effective option compared to visiting a salon, but Piliang said she would expect UV light exposure to be similar to that of a salon lamp.
The same goes for manicures that use LED lights, which emit smaller amounts of UV but could still pose a threat.
"For people doing manicures with LED lights, I would recommend the same precautions - UV gloves and sunscreen," she said.