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How UV Lights Dry Nails

Take precautions and you'll be fine with UV lights.
Take precautions and you'll be fine with UV lights.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

In your secret fantasies, your nails never chip or fade, but real life isn't like that -- or is it? One of the latest innovations in the nail enhancement industry is the UV gel manicure. If you haven't had one yet, this advancement in nail polish technology actually lives up to the hype. If you want shimmering nails that have that still-wet sheen days and even weeks after your manicure, read on.

Instead of sitting in front of an oscillating mini-fan waiting for your nails to dry between coats (and coughing delicately from all the nail dust), a gel polish treatment uses ultraviolet (UV) light to dry nails fast. Spending an afternoon having your nails tortured into submission with a file, buffer and cuticle stick only to ruin your fresh manicure reaching for your keys is a thing of the past with gel nails.

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The gel medium reacts to UV light by creating a super hard finish, too. Instead of going a week to 10 days without chipping, you can get up to three weeks of useful life from a UV gel nail manicure. Actually, your gel nails may never chip, crack or peel. They could actually grow out enough to need a touch up without showing any signs of wear. That's pretty amazing.

If this sounds too good to be true, you're justified in being concerned -- a little, anyway. Let's take a closer look to see how safe gel nails really are.

The UV light used to apply gel nails has been described as a mini tanning bed for your hands. The reality may be a bit less harsh given the bad rap tanning beds have received in recent years, but it's still a sobering thought. On the one hand (no pun intended), you slather on sunscreen to avoid damaging ultraviolet rays, and on the other, you pay good money (up to twice as much as a conventional manicure) to bathe your digits in ultraviolet light for the privilege of drying your nail polish faster. Sure, gel nail polish looks better longer than regular nail polish, but is the convenience worth the risk?

Let's start by taking a look at how a UV gel manicure works: Having gel nail polish applied is actually a multi-step process. A special nail solution is applied to each natural or synthetic nail in as many as four to five coats. After each coat is added, the nails are briefly exposed to a UV-A light inside a small box. The nails cure and dry quickly, but the light does more than illuminate the nail area. It also illuminates the delicate skin on the back of the hand. There is growing concern among medical professionals that increased UV exposure from nail lights poses a skin cancer risk. This is a hot topic we'll discuss in greater detail in just a minute.

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Gel nail polish is also called soak-off polish. That's because it can be very difficult to remove. Getting rid of the polish requires a long soak in an acetone mixture -- and the possible application of a number of scraping tools that bear a striking resemblance to torture devices used in past centuries. If this sounds time consuming, uncomfortable and potentially damaging to your nails, it is.

Being forewarned will help you make a measured choice when it comes to deciding what type of manicure works best for you. If your greatest concern is the cost, though, DIY gel polish kits and lamps are available for home manicures through most nail product retailers. The initial expense may be a bit steep (about $75), but you'll save money over time compared to the cost of multiple salon manicures.

One of the biggest concerns regarding gel nail treatments involves the UV-A lamps used to set or cure the gel polish. The fear here is that exposure to even small amounts of UV light on a regular basis may cause skin cancer. UV-A light penetrates deep into the skin. UV nail lights and tanning beds actually use the same technology. Proponents argue that the nail curing process requires relatively little time under UV light as opposed to, say, getting a whole body tan for your next vacation. It takes about five minutes of UV light exposure to cure a gel nail manicure. That's still enough time to cause some regular UV gel nail customers to develop age spots on their hands, a preliminary sign of UV skin damage.

In 2009, a report in the Archives of Dermatology voiced concerns that increased UV-A exposure caused by nail curing lights may contribute to photoaging and an increased skin cancer risk. Research into how much of a risk these lights actually pose is ongoing.

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That's not the only potential problem with gel nails, either. The methyl acrylate used in many gel preparations can cause allergic reactions like contact dermatitis in some people, and gel formulas often use butylated hydroxyanisol (BHA), an ingredient that has been linked to cancer in its own right.

Don't panic yet, though. You know there's some potential danger in sun exposure, but that doesn't keep you from going outdoors during the day. If you think having a long lasting manicure is worth a little discomfort and possibly some risk, give gel nails a try -- but take precautions. Apply a sunscreen product to your hands that has an SPF 30 rating or better before having (or giving yourself) a gel nail manicure. If you treat yourself to manicures often, you might also want to wear cotton gloves (with the tips cut off to expose your nails) as an added precaution.

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Sources

  • ABC News. "Gel Manicure Consumer Alert." 4/12/12. (7/1/12). http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/gel-manicure-consumer-alert-ultraviolet-light-harmful-health-16123131
  • Allen, Jenny. "Thank Me. Your Nails Will, Too." The New York Times. 3/15/12. (7/1/12). http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/fashion/jenny-allen-an-off-broadway-actress-on-gel-nail-polish.html?pagewanted=all
  • Amazon. "Thermal Spa 49135 Professional U/V Gel Light Nail Dryer." (7/1/12). http://www.amazon.com/Thermal-Spa-49135-Professional-Light/dp/B001RMP7M6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341605300&sr=8-1&keywords=UV+nail+dryer
  • Leamy, Elisabeth. "10 Tips to Keep Your Gel Manicure Safe." ABC News Blogs. 4/12/12. (7/1/12). http://gma.yahoo.com/blogs/abc-blogs/tips-keep-gel-manicure-safe-120106112--abc-news-health.html
  • Leamy, Elisabeth. "Woman Says Gel Manicure Done Wrong Caused Possible Nerve Damage." ABC News. 6/28/10. (7/1/12). http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/ConsumerNews/gel-manicures-harm-nerves-properly/story?id=11029335#.T_c-4fXUIhw
  • MacFarlane, Deborah F. MD, MPH; Carol A. Alonso, MD. "Occurrence of Nonmelanoma Skin Cancers on the Hands After UV Nail Light Exposure." American Medical Association. 4/2009. (7/1/12). http://archderm.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=711988
  • Manetti, Michelle. "Gel Manicure Cancer? UV Drying Technique May Lead To Health Problems, Study Finds." Huffington Post. 3/6/12. (7/1/12). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/06/gel-manicures-can-cause-cancer_n_1324519.html
  • Metallic Nails. "The Difference Between Gel and Acrylic Nails?" (7/1/12). http://www.metallicnails.com.au/blogs/nail-articles/1577112-the-difference-between-gel-and-acrylic-nails
  • O' Connor, Anahad. "The Claim: Salons' UV Nail Lights Can Cause Skin Cancer." New York Times. 8/2/10. (7/1/12). http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/03/health/03real.html
  • Parker-Pope, Tara. "UV Risk after a Manicure." New York Times - Wellness Blog. 8/2010. (7/1/12). http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/uv-risk-after-a-manicure/
  • Taylor, Susan. "The Skinny on Gel Nail Polish." Huffington Post. 3/12/12. (7/1/12). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-susan-taylor/gel-nail-polish_b_1333236.html
  • The Beauty Brains. "4 Dangers of Acrylic Nails." 10/18/07. (7/1/12). http://thebeautybrains.com/2007/10/18/4-dangers-of-acrylic-nails/

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