Do Acrylic Nails Cause Cancer?

Long-term exposure may increase risk for manicurists

UV lamp and chemicals for nails may increase cancer risk

mikroman6 / Moment / Getty Images

Acrylic nails are a popular type of artificial nail used to add glamour, length, and strength to natural nails. If you’ve heard rumors that acrylic nails could be linked to cancer, you might be worried about the potential for fingernail cancer or skin cancer under your nail after getting a manicure.

However, the potential link between acrylic nails and cancer is far more complicated than that. It’s the exposure to a combination of chemicals used in the manicuring process and ultraviolet (UV) light sometimes used to cure or dry nails that could increase the risk of developing cancer of the nose, throat, skin, blood, or lymphatic system. 

That said, it’s important to note that some studies have examined cancer risk after decades of high exposure—not the occasional manicure. Furthermore, results have been mixed, so more research is needed to clarify just how risky working at a nail salon or getting manicures could be. 

So, are acrylic nails safe or bad for you? Read on to learn everything you need to know about acrylic nails and cancer risk, plus how to protect yourself by reducing your exposure to known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). 

What Are Acrylic Nails?

Acrylic nails are fake nails made from a combination of liquid and powder chemicals that harden after you paint them on. Because chipping them off yourself can damage nails, it's best to visit a professional for proper removal which includes a file, soak, and rehydration.

Cancer-Causing Chemicals

Applying acrylic nails can expose you to a combination of chemicals that have been linked to cancer. This may be why some research suggests that long-term nail salon employees could be at an increased risk of developing certain cancers. 

Cancer Risk to Nail Salon Employees

One 2019 study in Environmental Pollution found that nail technicians who had been working for over 20 years had a significantly higher risk of developing cancer, possibly due to heightened exposure to harmful substances.

Potential cancer-causing chemicals found in acrylic nails products include: 

  • Benzene: This carcinogen is linked to blood cancers including leukemia and multiple myeloma as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. It is found in nail polishes, nail polish removers, nail hardeners, and fingernail glue.
  • Formaldehyde (formalin or methylene glycol): This carcinogen is linked to an increased risk of leukemia and nasopharyngeal cancer. It is found in nail polishes, nail hardeners, and disinfectants.
  • Ethyl methacrylate: This is a probable carcinogen found in acrylic nail products. 

Health Risks From Acrylic Nail Fumes

That chemical scent you notice the moment you walk into a nail salon comes from volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds evaporate easily and have been linked to many health problems such as headaches, irritation of the eyes, skin, and throat, difficulty breathing, pregnancy complications, and cancer.

Ultraviolet Lamps and Skin Cancer

Although acrylic and gel nails aren’t always dried under UV lamps or lights, they often are. Long-term exposure to UV light—the kind emitted by the sun, tanning beds, and nail-curing lamps—can cause skin damage and could in turn increase your risk of developing skin cancer. 

This doesn’t necessarily translate to a worrisome link between manicures and skin cancer, though. While more research is needed, a 2014 study published in JAMA Dermatology suggests that the risk of getting skin cancer from getting your nails done—even numerous times—is likely low.

Tanning beds
, on the other hand, emit far more UV light, and they're to blame for an estimated 419,245 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. every year.

Prevention

Despite what some scary headlines may tell you, more research is needed to sort out the risk of developing cancer from acrylic nails products or regular trips to the nail salon. What we do know is that exposure to cancer-causing chemicals and UV light can add up over the years. For this reason, it’s best to take precautions to protect yourself—especially if you work at a nail salon.

If you’re a nail salon owner or employee, you can reduce your exposure with common-sense measures like wearing safety glasses, long sleeves, and gloves; washing your hands, arms, and face frequently; and making sure you have top-notch ventilation at your table and in the building, according to recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 

Can't live without your weekly mani? You can protect your hands from skin damage by skipping the UV lamp portion of your manicure or putting on waterproof sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher before your visit, per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

If you’re doing your own nails at home, make sure to read all of the instructions and warning statements on the label and move into a well-ventilated area before you get started.

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Article Sources
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  2. American Cancer Society. Benzene and cancer risk. Updated January 5, 2016.

  3. National Cancer Institute. Formaldehyde and cancer risk. Updated June 10, 2011.

  4. Environmental Protection Agency. Ethyl acrylate.

  5. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Volatile organic compounds impact on indoor air quality.

  6. Tanner CJ, Judd P, Childs C, et al. Acrylic nail curing UV lamps: High-intensity exposure warrants further research of skin cancer risk. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2013;69(6):1069-1070. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2013.08.032

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  8. Wehner M, Chren M, Nameth D, et al. International prevalence of indoor tanning a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Dermatol. 2014;150(4):390-400. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2013.6896

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  10. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). How to safely use nail care products. 2017.