The 411 On Safety

Do You Really Need To Apply Sunscreen Before A Manicure?

New research is, ahem, shining a light on the potential dangers lurking at your nail salon.

Recent research suggests that long-term exposure to UV mani lamps could contribute to cancer risk.
Kosamtu/Getty Images

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, wearing sunscreen every day is really crucial to protect your skin from the sun's harmful rays. Yep, every day. Even when it's cloudy, even when it's cold, and even when you're not outside for all that long. And while you know how important it is to practice sun safety, recent research is, ahem, shining a light on the potential risks your skin faces at the nail salon — namely, the UV lamps used to cure and dry those beloved gel manicures that help you feel like a human again (at least temporarily) and withstand the many hands-on mom duties you deal with day in and day out.

Could a routine trip to the nail salon or at-home manicure actually contribute to your risk of skin cancer? Do you need to slather on sunscreen before every manicure? Allow a derm to break it all down for you. Spoiler alert: You can probably breathe easy, but some simple precautionary measures certainly won't hurt.

What's the latest?

A recent study published in Nature Communications set out to answer definitively whether or not UV nail polish dryers are safe for use on human skin. A team of researchers from the University of California San Diego and the University of Pittsburgh tested the UV-emitting devices, which are commonly found in salons and as part of at-home mani kits, finding that "chronic UV exposure" — that is, 20-minute increments over three consecutive days — did increase the risk of DNA damage to human cells that could up the risk of cancer.

But the experts note that more large-scale research is needed since gel manicures are a relatively new practice. That said, the American Academy of Dermatology does recommend wearing fingerless gloves or a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher before getting a gel manicure. So, is it worth ensuring extra protection now to prevent any cumulative damage from occurring after years of regular (or semi-regular) gel manis? And do you need sunscreen for a regular manicure, too? That depends, as Dr. Geeta Yadav, board-certified dermatologist and founder of FACET Dermatology, tells Scary Mommy.

How can nail dryers impact cancer risk, exactly?

There's a good chance you've never given much thought to those nail dryers in the first place, but they contain pretty powerful technology, says Yadav. "Even though LED nail dryers are more common these days, they still emit UV light, which is the type of light needed to cure a gel manicure. UV exposure is harmful to skin — any unprotected UV exposure increases your likelihood of developing skin cancer. It also causes collagen to deteriorate, which creates fine lines, wrinkles, and skin laxity. UV also often triggers the formation of hyperpigmentation, leaving behind sun spots."

A few minutes here and there might not feel too risky. Still, experts are concerned about the accumulation over time, particularly if you treat yourself to multiple gel manis each year for several years. The same risk would apply to any nail dryer that emits UV light, even if you skip gel manicures in lieu of the classics, notes Yadav.

"Some drying machines, even for regular manicures, contain UV lights," she says. "You'll want to make sure you're using a drying machine that's just emitting air, which will not have a negative effect on your skin." If you peek down and notice the machine giving off a red, blue, or purple glow, that's a good sign your skin is being exposed to potentially damaging UV light.

How can you protect yourself?

Thankfully, protecting the skin on your fingers, hands, and forearms is pretty easy, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you don't realistically see yourself remembering to apply sunscreen before heading out to the salon, no sweat. Yadav recommends UV fingerless gloves, like those from ManiGlovz, which you can stash in your purse or car so you have 'em on hand (ahem, ahem) whenever you need them.

"They're much easier to work with in a nail salon setting — lotions and creams can prevent nail polish from adhering and curing properly to the nail, and if you're going to put yourself at risk to get the manicure anyway, you at least want it to last," says Yadav. "[They] feature UPF technology to block UV rays and are easy to slip on before your nail technician starts painting your nails; they only leave the ends of the fingers exposed so you can protect your skin while allowing your nail tech room to work."

You can also spring for nail treatments that don't require UV light to dry or cure, such as powder dip polish, but Yadav notes other potential issues plaguing these services. "These types of treatments can be tough on the nail and nail bed, especially during the removal process, but because they don't incorporate UV light, you shouldn't worry about them having negative effects on the skin."

In a pinch, of course, good old sunscreen will do the trick. Just try to remember to apply it at least 15 minutes before your manicure so it can absorb fully into the skin. It's worth taking a little extra time and care to protect your skin — future you will be glad you did.