How Safe Are Gel Nails?

Gel manicures require ultraviolet light for the polish to set. Robert Przybysz/Shutterstock

On the surface, gel manicures seem to be the proverbial answer to every salongoer’s prayer. In days of old (say, 2010), if you got a manicure, you could expect it to chip after just a couple of days — even sooner if you washed dishes — or even your hands — too often.

Enter the gel manicure: a polish that lasts and lasts until you decide to take it off. Perfect for the working woman or busy mom who just doesn’t have time to get her nails done as often as she’d like. So what’s the downside?

To set, gel manicures require curing by an ultraviolet light for 10 to 15 minutes after the polish is applied. Studies have shown that the exposure to UV during this process is minimal and probably not enough to cause cancer, but it is enough to do some other damage, including photoaging.

What is photoaging? Over time, skin ages and loses its youthful appearance. Although some of these factors are natural and unavoidable, many of the visible signs of aging, such as wrinkles, can be caused by exposure to UV rays.

Long-term UV exposure

We may not know all there is to know about gel manicures, but we do know that long-term exposure to UV radiation can cause melanoma.

Miss Illinois USA Karolina Jasko believes her regular trips to the nail salon may have led to cancer. "I got this black vertical line on my fingernail and I never really noticed it because I had acrylics,” Jasko told FOX 32 Chicago. "The doctor said I most likely got it from getting my nails done from the nail salon from getting acrylics from the light." Jasko was only 18 years old when she was diagnosed.

Whether your family has a history of melanoma or not, wearing sunscreen on your hands or any skin that will be affected by the UV light is a good idea.

Other side effects of manicures

Another downside to gel manicures? Because the gel binds to the nail for a prolonged period of time, oxygen to the nail is depleted. When it’s time to take the gel manicure off (which takes a full 15 minutes of soaking in acetone), the nails are often brittle and thin.

A frequent salongoer myself, I used to get weekly manicures and monthly pedicures. Nothing beats soaking your feet in the tub while sitting in that massage chair, right? But a story I saw on the news about a woman who had caught an infection from a nail salon (the technician nicked her finger while cutting the woman’s cuticles and apparently the instruments were harboring bacteria, which transferred through the open wound) skeeved me out so much that I’ve since stopped going.

Turns out that nail salons, albeit relaxing, can be a hotbed for germs. That’s because many nail salons don’t sterilize the equipment properly between customers. Equipment should be sterilized in an autoclave and not just dunked in sterilizing solution to be effectively cleaned.

And remember those delicious foot soaking tubs? What if the person who soaked in it right before you had toenail fungus? A mere rinse of the tub in between customers isn’t going to spare you from picking up the fungus. If reading this leaves you concerned, but not enough to stop going for your regular mani/pedi, know that the risks of infection can be minimized. Don’t be afraid to ask your salon about its sterilization techniques and bring your own tools if you feel more comfortable.

It’s also helpful to let your nails air out in between manicures or take a break from gel manicures every couple of months to ensure your nails get oxygen and moisture during that time. You’ll be doing yourself and your nails a favor.