Sep 11, 2016

Gel Manicures and UV Skin Aging

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By Jordan V. Wang, MD, MBE

Manicures have always been a crowd favorite, whether it’s part of a weekly routine or even just a treat for making it through the work week. And over the years, gel manicures have grown into a beauty phenomenon. They last longer, look shinier, are super thick, and save money. But all that glitters is not gold. So what’s hiding beneath the surface?

After the special gel polish gets painted on, it has to go through a unique curing process in order to harden. This is done by putting your hands in a box that has lights shining down on them. But have you ever questioned what kind of light is being used?

The majority of manufacturers have been using lamps that emit UVA as their key source, which is also known as the UV wavelength that causes premature aging of the skin. UVA rays penetrate deeper down into your dermis where it causes its cellular damage. So when curing your nails, what you’re actually doing is triggering accelerated aging of your skin. Over time, routine gel manicures may slowly be causing your hands to become more wrinkled with more sun-damaged spots. In an attempt to make your hands look prettier, you may ironically be doing quite the opposite.

What’s worse is that the strength of the light bulbs varies with each manufacturer. Without any regulation from a state or national agency, there remains a gross lack of oversight and no set industry standard. The UVA rays can be up to four times as strong as natural sunlight.

A recent study in 2014 showed that it can take as low as eight total gel manicures over time to reach UVA levels that would cause significant sun damage. However, there has yet to be any large and reliable studies looking at their effects on causing skin cancer of the hands.

The great news is that some manufacturers have already started to switch to LED-based devices, which call for shorter curing times with safer light emissions. Although still not regulated, they currently appear to be much safer for routine use.

For those who still desire gel manicures, perhaps the best advice would be to apply a UVA sunscreen prior to using the UV lamps. Physical blocking sunscreens remain the best option. This can help to prevent the absorption of photoaging rays. In an effort to make your nails more attractive in the short-term, this may help your hands stay beautiful over time.

Before getting your next gel manicure, be sure to ask them which type of light is being used. And if the answer is UV, you better hope you packed your own sunscreen to-go. Your younger-looking hands will thank you later.

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