A recent study published in the Nature Communications Journal on January 17, 2023 has led to some questions, among our client base, about the safety of gel manicures. Let's discuss the study's premise, its results and my opinion on whether or not gel manicures are "safe".
- The researchers performed in-vitro irradiation on human and murine (mice) cells using acute (20 minutes, twice a day, within a single day) and chronic (20 minutes for 3 consecutive days) exposure to evaluate the DNA damage and effects of UV radiation emitted by a gel polish UV lamp.
- To conduct the testing, the researchers purchased and used a 54-W UV nail drying machine sold by MelodySusie. This lamp holds 6 bulbs that emit UV photons in the gel polish curing process.
- All non-control, tested cells showed varying levels of cell death, oxidative and DNA damage.
- The researchers acknowledge at least 3 important limitations of their experiments - (1) all tested cells were missing the cornified layer of the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin that can absorb much of the UV irradiation), (2) in-vitro systems can experience different mutations than those that occur in normal human skin, and (3) the mutations found in the study do not provide direct information on skin carcinogenesis in human populations.
So are gel manicures safe?
If you follow our social media, are a client of my skincare practice or reader of my blog, you know how I feel about protecting your skin from UV damage. It is the cornerstone belief in my skincare practice and the very first thing I discuss with all clients. There is no point in getting regular facial treatments or using expensive skincare products, if you do not protect your skin from damaging UV rays.
Given that premise, how do I feel about this study? I have mixed feelings.
I commend the researchers for their effort in trying to determine whether or not dangers truly exist when using UV curing lamps. As a spa owner and wellness practitioner, the last thing I want to do is to provide a service that is harmful to my clients.
I've got some questions about the study's parameters -
Why did the researchers choose to irradiate for 20 minutes? They note in the study that, in a real-life scenario, client's hands are under the lamp for up to 10 minutes (5 minutes per hand). So why did they choose to expose the test samples to twice the normal time?
Moreover, in the "acute exposure" testing scenario, the researchers irradiated the test samples for 20 minutes, twice in a single day. Not only is 20 minutes twice the normal exposure time in a single salon setting, but 40 minutes of exposure in one day? I can't imagine why we would subject a client to that level of exposure in a single gel manicure appointment.
In the "chronic exposure" testing scenario, the researchers irradiated the test samples for 3 consecutive days (again 20 minute sessions). To the best of my knowledge, clients don't subject themselves to gel polish manicures for 3 consecutive days. Rather, regular gel polish manicure clients are seen every 2-3 weeks (and their hands are exposed for up to 10 minutes max, not 20).
The biggest limitation of this study, in my opinion, is the type of test samples that were used. The researchers tested 3 types of cells - mouse embryonic fibroblasts, human foreskin fibroblasts and adult human epidermal keratinocytes. All of the samples lack the protective cornified layer of the epidermis that resides on our skin and that plays a significant role in protecting us for daily UV radiation.
The concern over UV exposure in gel manicures is not a new topic. The professional nail care industry, many years ago, moved away from UV curing lamps and, instead, opted for LED light curing devices. Despite a lack of concrete evidence that UV curing lamps posed an increased danger for skin cancer, the industry pivoted to a different technology all together. UV curing lamps are still available and used, but many salons and spas have opted for LED curing instead (which is not mentioned in the study at all).
The researchers chose a UV lamp sold by MelodySusie to conduct their experiments. It is unclear which lamp model the researchers actually selected for the study, but the prices for MelodySusie lamps range from $40 to $80 for their "salon series" of lamps. The company sells nailcare products and markets themselves as the source to "bring your nail salon home" rather than a nail-professional-only marketplace.
So, are gel manicures safe?
That conclusion cannot be drawn from the results of this specific study. In preparation for writing this blog post, I poured over multiple studies (all referenced below) and not a single study is conclusive. While I have some questions about this particular study, its the resulting press that has been published that really annoys me. Various news outlets have taken the results of this study, mixed with "expert" opinion, and arrived at conclusions that are just not supported by the science.
Clients ask me all the time - which service will be the least damaging to my natural nails - gel, builder gel, dip or acrylic, etc? My response is ALWAYS the same - if your primary concern is about the health of your nails, you should stay away from all of them (even regular polish). Get regular manicures, buff your nails and use cuticle oil every day, all day long. I'm not in the business of convincing clients to get a service so I can make an extra buck. My focus is helping my clients achieve their goals in the safest way possible.
Our approach, at Sesen, has been to make gel manicures as safe as possible based on the most current and available science. When there was concern over UV gel curing lamps, we immediately switched to LED curing devices. We've implemented changes to our protocol -
- Application of a broadband, physical sunscreen at the start of a gel manicure.
- Fingertip-less, UV-absorbing gloves on hand for clients to wear during the curing time.
In the end, clients should review the science, consider their own personal health factors and make a decision based on that data. Whether you opt for a gel polish manicure or not, the decision is entirely personal.