Can gel nail lamps damage your hands and cause skin cancer?

I was getting my nails done last week when a woman came in, sat down next to me, pulled a pair of gloves out of her bag, and put them on.

To reiterate: she put gloves on to get her nails done.

I was confused, to say the least. But then I noticed that the gloves she was wearing were missing the fingertips.

It turns out that these were to protect her hands from the UV rays of the nail lamp, the holes at the end in place to give the manicurist access to her nails.

My mind was blown. As I sat there, suffering the burning feeling that happens when the gel is applied too thickly in silence, I realised I’d never considered whether these lamps could be doing my skin any damage – despite going semi-regularly to get my nails done.

I’m not alone. Gel nails are big business. A study from 2016 found that British women spend £161 million a year collectively on nails. And it’s likely that this figure is higher now, with nail salons popping up all over the country and gel nails feeling commonplace, rather than being for a special occasion.

But can they cause our skin any damage?

In short, the answer is yes.

How nail laps can age your skin

First up, we have ageing.

We tend to associate the thought of ageing skin with the face, but of course all skin ages, and hands can be more prone than other body parts due to being exposed to the outdoors more. And ageing is impacted by lots of factors.

‘The skin on the hands, like skin elsewhere on the body, undergoes both intrinsic and extrinsic ageing,’ says plastic surgeon and skin cancer expert, Dr Paul Banwell.

‘Extrinsic ageing is caused by environmental factors such as sun exposure, chemicals and smoking’, and will directly affect the epidermis and dermal layers leading to issues such as uneven pigmentation and premature ageing.’

Now, they have manicures to contend with as well, with gel nail polish cured by a UV lamp to make it last as long as possible.

‘The degree the UV light affects the skin is still up for debate,’explains Candice Quinn of MNISAFE London. ‘Because gel nail lamps only rose in popularity over the past decade, there are limited research studies for medical professionals to provide advice from.’

‘However, as all nail lamps are required to emit wavelengths of light from the UVA spectrum to cure the gel polish, they can contribute to ageing of the hand’s skin.

‘Although UVA rays are not as intense as UVB rays that are responsible for burning, they penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin, called the dermis and cause damage to the DNA and collagen of the skin with cumulative (repeated) exposure.

‘This type of damage to the skin cells leads to wrinkles, dull-looking and sagging skin, and hyperpigmentation (a.k.a. age spots). These are mostly preventable if we protect our skin from UVA rays.’

Adverse reactions

In addition to ageing the skin, exposure to gel polishes and UV light can lead to other skin problems, points outDr Sasha Dhoat fromStratum Dermatology Clinics.

He says: ‘As well as causing photo-ageing in your hands, cumulative UV exposure can develop allergic contact dermatitis to acrylates in gel – causing an eczema-like reaction, redness, peeling, sore fingers and even eyelid eczema from transfer.’

Can getting your nails done cause skin cancer?

So, can exposure to nail lamps actually lead to skin cancer? In theory, yes – although the risk is relatively low.

‘Repeated exposure to the lamps can absolutely cause cumulative damage to the skin over the years,’explains Dr Banwell.

‘Most cases of skin cancer are caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, tanning beds, or sunlamps so, yes, repeated exposure to the gel lamps without sun protection could indeed lead to skin cancer.’

However, current research suggests that the risk of getting skin cancer from using nail lamps is low.

‘There have been many studies of the causes and risks from these devices and the risk is very low. however still a risk,’ says Chartered Scientist and founder of SOS Serum Skincare, Bruce Green.

‘The longer your expose your hands and nails to a UV lamp, the higher the chances of advanced skin reactions.’

As a result, dermatologists and other skin experts recommend you protect the skin on your hands when getting a gel manicure.

How can I protect my hands when getting my nails done?

This is all pretty scary and something that we don’t generally pay enough attention to – there aren’t really any clear guidelines in terms of what is an acceptable amount of exposure, for someone whois going regularly to get their nails done.

However, there are some steps that can be taken to protect the skin.

Wear sunscreen when you go to get gel nails done

‘Protecting skin from the damaging UV rays is a key part in the battle against skin cancer,’ Dr Banwell explains.

‘Fortunately skin protection in the form of SPF is better and more advanced than ever before – however people continue to apply it too sparingly and not often enough.

‘Guidelines suggest you should apply around 1 teaspoon of sunscreen to each hand and make sure that you apply it to all areas including in between the fingers.’

In terms of how to decide which SPF to wear, Dr Ophelia Veraitch, consultant dermatologist, says: ‘It’s best to choose a broad spectrum SPF because these protect not just against UVA light but UVB light too.

‘Apply it first thing in the morning with your usual skincare routine, and re-apply regularly throughout the day.

‘They should also have a star rating that indicates the UVA protection, the highest rating is five stars which I would always recommend looking for.

‘I would recommend using an SPF factor 30 during the winter and when indoors, and SPF50 for maximum protection in the summer.’

So should you be wearing SPF next time you go for a manicure? Yes, absolutely.

Invest in a pair of protective gloves

If you want to protect yourself even further, there are protective gloves available, that block out any potentially harmful rays.

For example, these gloves from MANISAFE London, are designed to be worn when gel polish is being applied and cured, to protect the hands.

‘Our fingerless gloves are UPF 50+ rated, meaning they block out over 98% of UVA + UVB rays, which is the gold standard for UV and sun protection,’ explains Candice, founder of the company.

‘By blocking the UV rays from reaching your skin, you are helping protect them from the DNA and collagen damage that can occur to the deeper layers of your skin (the dermis) from UVA ray exposure.’

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