Safety of gel and shellac nail manicures

Hi Alice!

I love getting my nails done with a gel or shellac manicure. The polish doesn't chip at all and stays shiny for weeks. I'm just worried about the UV light used to seal the manicure - it is almost like a mini tanning bed for your hands. What are the risks? And are there any bad chemicals in the polish?

Thanks, Alice! Dazzling Diva

Dear Dazzling Diva, 

Some people say, “beauty is pain,” but feeling beautiful doesn’t need to be hazardous to your health. Traditional gel and shellac manicures are quite popular for the reasons you’ve listed: they’re durable, chip-resistant, and have a nice, lustrous shine (more on the difference between the two manicures in a bit). Both gel and shellac manicures use  ultraviolet (UV) light to cure the nail color, which is a process that makes the nail color harder and last longer. Though the curing process for both is relatively safe, these types of manicures aren’t completely without risk. The gel polishes used for these manicures may cause allergic reactions or nail damage for some people. Additionally, the UV exposure can present minor risks to your skin and eyes, especially if the curing lamp is not used properly or you have preexisting risk factors. An alternative to these types of manicures is dip powder manicures, which use a colored powder, clear sealant, and no UV light. As with other beauty salon services, it’s a good idea to be aware of potential health and safety risks before you head off for some pampering. Choosing licensed, professional, and sanitary salons tends to be the safest bet to reduce your risk of various diseases and infections. 

While both types of manicures you mentioned are of the ‘gel’ variety, there are a few differences between the two: 

  • Gel manicures begin by the manicurist applying a dehydrator on the nail, then a coat of primer gel, and finishes off with three layers of colored gel. Each layer is cured using a UV lamp, for about one to three minutes. Traditional gel manicures need to be rebalanced (i.e., cleaned, trimmed, and filed) approximately every two weeks because the nail plates will continue to grow, leaving gaps. You can get a gel manicure both at a salon and at home with commercially available kits. 
  • A shellac manicure is a longer-lasting type of gel manicure. They last for about four to six weeks and there’s no shaping or arching needed. Though it has staying power, the process is also longer. It involves six coating steps with one to three minutes of curing for each step. Shellac manicure products can only be purchased by professionals, and thus, the manicures can only be done at a salon. 

As for the potential risks, what’s a diva to do about UV exposure? The good news is, it may be less than you think. For context, the intensity of the UV light for a manicure lamp is many times lower than that of a traditional tanning bed. Multiple studies have shown that this UV light isn't enough exposure to put users at greater risk of skin cancer. People who should be wary of these UV lamps are those with a history of skin cancer or people with preexisting diseases such as xeroderma pigmentosum (a rare, but extreme sensitivity to UV rays). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers nail curing lamps to be low risk for UV exposure so long as they're used as instructed. Abnormally long exposure to the UV lamp or use of incorrect bulbs in the lamp could increase the risk for adverse effects. Additionally, UV light exposure to your eyes can damage structures in your eyes and contribute to vision loss. 

If do choose to proceed with gel manicures and want a bit of extra protection, dermatologists suggest using sunscreen on your hands or putting a cloth over the flesh of your hands before putting them under the lamp. Also, wearing sunglasses may help protect your eyes from possible UV rays. 

If you’re concerned about your exposure to UV light or you’re up for trying something new, consider a dip powder manicure instead. This technique doesn't involve curing with a UV lamp, and is considered durable, long lasting (up to four weeks), and a more chip-proof manicure option. That being said, this technique comes with its own risks. Some salons dip multiple customers’ fingers in the same powder—referred to as double dipping, which can lead to higher risk of infection transmission. In addition to ensuring that salons aren’t sharing their dip powder between clients, there are other steps that you can take to help keep your nails healthy: consider asking your nail technician not to push or cut your cuticles, which helps reduce the risk of infection; ask your technician to dip only one nail initially to test for an allergic reaction; and give your nails ample time to recover between manicures. If you notice any skin abnormalities, whether or not you think they’re connected to your manicures, it’s best to consult with your health care provider. 

Whatever you decide, you have "mani" options to choose from to maintain your dazzle! 

Last updated Mar 31, 2023
Originally published Dec 19, 2014

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