Do Gel Nails Raise Cancer Risk?

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on May 11, 2022
2 min read

No odor and longer-lasting nails are two reasons people opt for gel polish instead of the traditional kind. It’s convenient, but are you putting yourself at risk for skin cancer if you visit the nail salon a lot? Here’s what you should know.

They’re a blend of liquid (the monomer) and powder (the polymer). It’s basically the same thing nail technicians use to glue fake nails to your real nail, just premixed. They put it on like regular polish. Then they use lamps or light boxes with ultraviolet (UV) light to dry it.

The main concern is the UV light, not the polish itself. That’s the same kind of light the sun and tanning beds give off. It can damage your skin and lead to cancer. There are two types, UVA and UVB. UVA is what you’re exposed to in nail salons.

In a case study, two women reported skin cancer after UV lamp exposure. They had no personal or family history of the disease. Experts can’t say for sure that UV lamps caused it, but they think it could be a risk factor.

One study said it would take more than 13,000 salon sessions to match the level of UV phototherapy exposure. But another said damage could happen much sooner, between just 8 to 208 visits. More research is needed.

You can always stick to regular polish and skip the UV light. But there are ways to lower your UV light exposure if you don’t want to give up gel nails. Here are a few tips:

Wear sunscreen. Use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Do this 30 minutes before. This will help protect your skin from the UV rays and ward off skin cancer and signs of early aging. You can also put on dark gloves with the fingertips snipped off before the technician polishes your nails.

Use an LED light. LED lights give off lower levels of UV radiation than a UV curing light. An LED light also hardens the polish faster. That lowers the amount of time you’re exposed.

Get them only on special occasions. This also lowers your exposure and gives your nails a chance to repair themselves.