Are Gel Manicures Safe? A Study Says UV Nail Dryers May Pose Skin Cancer Risks

UV dryer for gel manicure

Verywell / Tara Anand

Key Takeaways

  • New research suggests the nail dryers used for gel manicures can result in significant cell death, damage DNA in skin cells, and cause cell mutations that may lead to skin cancer.
  • The toxic fumes that spread through the air in nail salons are also proven to pose health risks no matter what service you choose.
  • If you decide to continue your mani-pedi routine despite the risks, protect your health by applying sunscreen, wearing fingerless gloves and a mask, making sure the salon has good ventilation, and spending as little time inside as possible.

Getting a mani-pedi is a self-care routine most people associate with relaxation and rejuvenation, but new research reveals it may come with significant health hazards.

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of California San Diego found that the radiation emitted by the UV nail dryers typically used for gel manicures can result in significant cell death, damage DNA in skin cells, and cause cell mutations that may lead to skin cancer.

Through studying these devices, which are marketed as being safe, the researchers found that one 20-minute session with one of these devices resulted in 20% to 30% cell death. Three consecutive 20-minute sessions, meanwhile, led to between 65% and 70% cell death, and exposure also caused mitochondrial and DNA damage in the leftover cells.

Maria Zhivagui, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in the Alexandrov Lab and first author of the study, said she used to get gel manicures periodically but has sworn them off since studying their effects. 

“Once I saw the effect of radiation emitted by the gel polish drying device on cell death and that it actually mutates cells even after just one 20-minute session, I was surprised,” she said in a news release about the results. “I found this to be very alarming, and decided to stop using it.”

While this study is one of the first to focus on the impacts of gel nail dryers specifically, it is one of many that demonstrates the dangers associated with direct exposure to UV radiation.

Vladyslava Doktor, MD, a dermatologist and the founder of Skin Center Boston, told Verywell the results are consistent with what we already know to be true about the dangers of UV light exposure.

“There is definitely a level of risk that one assumes when intentionally exposing the skin to direct UVA light which has shown to be the main culprit in skin cancer development,” she said.

Nail Salons in General Pose a Certain Level of Health Risks

In addition to the nail dryers used for gel manicures, research has also demonstrated that harmful toxins linger in the nail salon air, suggesting all manicures—gel or not—may come with a certain level of risk. 

In January 2022, researchers at the University of Toronto published a study demonstrating that nail technicians were exposed to some hazardous chemicals at a higher rate than electronic waste workers.

Lupita Montoya, PhD, a research affiliate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who studies indoor air quality and the health effects of air pollutants, explained that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include chemicals found in many nail salon products such as acetone, ethyl acetate, and formaldehyde. These chemicals can easily turn into gases at room temperature.

Once in the air, they spread easily and can be inhaled by people, she said. If they’re not actively removed from the air, they can reach a dangerous level and pose health hazards.

“These chemicals are known to cause skin, eye, and respiratory irritation as well as headaches, neurological issues, reproductive complications, and cancer,” Montoya said.

In nail salons, individuals are also exposed to particles (aerosols) generated during some of the operations the technicians perform, such as the grinding of acrylic. Aerosols are different than gases, Montoya said, as they have more mass, can have very complex compositions, and can also pose a variety of health hazards.

How to Protect Yourself When Getting a Manicure

If, despite the risks, you’re determined to keep up with your mani-pedi routine, there are some precautions you can take to reduce the potential impacts of both UV light and toxic fumes.

“My recommendation would be to protect the skin at all times,” Doktor said. It’s a good idea to apply broad-spectrum physical sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to the hands, and you should also put it on your feet if you’re getting a gel pedicure too, she suggested.

UV radiation is typically contained inside the dryer, which has a small perimeter of reach designed for the circumference of human hands or feet, she said, so it’s unlikely to impact other parts of the body.

Do You Need to Use a UV Dryer?

Gel manicures require UV light exposure for the polish to harden. Some nail salons might use UV nail dryers even for regular nail polish, but it's unnecessary. If you're getting a regular manicure, ask your technician if you can opt for a nail dryer fan without UV.

You can also wear fingerless gloves to cover as much of the skin as possible, Montoya said, and you can choose services that don’t include exposure to UV light.

In terms of toxic chemicals in the air, there are also some precautions that can be taken to reduce the risks.

Wearing a high-efficiency mask can protect the wearer from aerosols, but they do very little to protect against gases, Montoya explained. The mask would have to be specifically designed to remove gases, but most masks on the market are meant to filter particles. They could, however, integrate adsorbent materials like activated carbon, which have been used to extract VOCs from several environments.

In terms of what businesses themselves can do, Montoya said having good ventilation is an excellent way to start, as well as using products and techniques that do not generate these air contaminants in the first place. 

Nail salons should make sure to properly operate and maintain their HVAC systems, meaning the air in the nail salon must change often. Any local ventilation, which technicians often have, should also be operating.

“If there are other ways to remove the pollutants from the air, they should be used,” Montoya said. She herself is currently working on designing control systems that can remove VOCs from the air.

Ultimately, she said, the less time spent in nail salons, the better.

“In general, reducing the time spent in places like nail salons is a good idea,” Montoya said. “Do not linger there unnecessarily.”

What This Means For You

If you frequent the nail salon on a regular basis, it’s important to understand the risks associated with UV nail dryers and toxic fumes. You can take precautions to reduce these risks, such as applying broad-spectrum physical sunscreen to your hands and feet, wearing fingerless gloves, wearing a mask, making sure the salon has good ventilation, and spending as little time inside as possible.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Zhivagui M, Hoda A, Valenzuela N, et al. DNA damage and somatic mutations in mammalian cells after irradiation with a nail polish dryerNat Commun. 2023;14(1):276. doi:10.1038/s41467-023-35876-8

  2. D’Orazio J, Jarrett S, Amaro-Ortiz A, Scott T. UV radiation and the skinInt J Mol Sci. 2013;14(6):12222-12248. doi:10.3390/ijms140612222

  3. Nguyen LV, Diamond ML, Kalenge S, Kirkham TL, Holness DL, Arrandale VH. Occupational exposure of Canadian nail salon workers to plasticizers including phthalates and organophosphate estersEnviron Sci Technol. 2022;56(5):3193-3203. doi:10.1021/acs.est.1c04974

By Mira Miller
Mira Miller is a freelance writer specializing in mental health, women's health, and culture.