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Are gel manicures safe?

Exposing your hands and nails to manicure UV lamps can cause skin cancer.
are gel manicures safe
Photo by Artyom Geodakyan\TASS via Getty Images

Like many Miss USA contestants, Karolina Jasko has an extensive beauty routine that includes regular gel manicures. It all turned upside down when she noticed something strange before one appointment.

"I got this black vertical line on my fingernail and I never really noticed it because I had acrylics,” the reigning Miss Illinois USA told Fox 32 in Chicago.

The black line turned out to be melanoma, one of the most common types of skin cancer.

"The doctor said I most likely got it from getting my nails done from the nail salon from getting acrylics from the light,” she said.

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Wait, is that really a thing? Yes. Are gel manicures safe? Maybe.

What causes melanoma?

Melanoma is the most common — and dangerous — forms of skin cancer that develops when skin cells are damaged due to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or via bulbs in tanning beds and, yes, the lamps used to cure gel manicures.

"UVA irradiance or strength emitted by nail lamps whether fluorescent or LED is at least four times stronger than UVA from normal sunlight," Chris G. Adigun, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in nail disorders, told Self.

Jasko doesn’t go into details about her melanoma, but fingernails and toenails are often affected by acral-lentiginous melanoma, a rarer form of "hidden" melanoma that can develop under nails, on the palms of hands and soles of the feet, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s also more common in people of color.

But few people realize the danger since, to date, no medical research has delved into the connection between gel manicures and skin cancer.

"Do we have data that this causes cancer? No. But do we know that UVA exposure causes cancer? Yes," Adigun said.

A 2014 study did find that different lamps emit different amounts of UV radiation — and skin damage is detectable with just 12 visits to a salon.

And even if you don’t get skin cancer, the light can damage skin, leaving behind hyperpigmentation.

"The tops of the hands are very cosmetically sensitive area, and we know that repeated exposure to UVA accelerates photoaging," Adigun told Self.

So are gel manicures safe?

Yes and no.

No, they’re not safe if you repeatedly expose your nails and skin to manicure lamps without some sort of barrier between.

"Use a sunscreen that has a physical blocker like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to cover all of your skin," Carolyn Jacob, director of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology, told Fox 32.

how to protect yourself while getting a gel manicure

You can also opt to wear protective gloves. These gloves — available online — only expose the nail surface while covering the rest of your hands.

But all the sunscreen and gloves in the world won’t protect your nails since they’re still getting the UV exposure. It’s best to avoid gel manicures if you’re worried about safety, but at the very least you should be checking them regularly for tell-tale dark spots or red streaks that don’t away.

Despite the risks, many dermatologists still understand the appeal of gel manicures to keep fingernails looking pretty, especially those with nail disfigurements or other diseases.

"I cannot imagine the world without gels for some of my patients," Adigun said.