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Why gel manicures probably won't give you skin cancer

Is this hand getting cancer right now? Probably not.
Is this hand getting cancer right now? Probably not.

Gel manicures have grown increasingly popular in the past few years, and for good reason: they chip less easily and last for weeks instead of a few days like normal polish. Industry data says gel manicures account for about 31 percent of all nail salon services.

But people also have concerns about the UV lights used during the process, and there's worry of potential risks while removing the durable polish. Are gel manicures too good to be true?

Two types of chip-free gel nails

Hard gel manicures seem like the dream: long nails with chip-free color. (Yoko/Flickr)

A gel manicure can be either "hard," extending the tip of your nail with a fake one, or "soft," applying gel polish just to the natural nail. Both hard and soft gel manicures stay in place for a few weeks. People love them because they don't crack or chip easily.

A hard gel manicure uses a gooey polish that, when put under a UV light, toughens up to makes your nails look longer, for an effect similar to acrylic nails. A technician brushes layers of the gel onto your nail and then paints out over a mold placed at the end of your fingertip. Between each layer, the gel is hardened under UV light. The light, through several steps, ends up causing a reaction with the resins in the gel, which releases heat and creates a hard polymer.

For a soft gel manicure, your natural nails are painted with a gel polish and then, again, hardened with UV light. Soft gel manicures give a similar effect to Shellac, a brand of "hybrid" gel-and-traditional polishes released in 2010 by Creative Nail Design.

Concerns about UV lights and cancer

Because these manicures require putting your nails under a UV light, there's been public concern that gel manicures could increase your risk for skin cancer.

In 2009, researchers reported that two women who developed skin cancer on their hands had used UV lights for manicures (one of the women used them twice a month for years, and the other only eight times). Neither had a family history of the disease. Both underwent surgeries to remove the skin cancer. However, this doesn't necessarily mean the lights caused their cancer. It's only a case study of two people, and no one knows if people getting this service are at any higher a rate of cancer than people who don't, because no one yet has systematically studied it to find out.

In a 2014 study, researchers examined 16 different UV lights in nail salons and found the particular ones studied only posed a small risk, but concluded a wider variety still needed to be tested.

The FDA regulates UV nail lamps just like it regulates the UV lights used in indoor tanning, and the agency hasn't released any warnings about potential dangers of UV nail lamps. Still, you might want to cut the tips off of photoprotective gloves and wear those during your manicure, or apply sunscreen to your hands before going into the salon.

Taking off gel nails can be tricky, too

You might need something stronger than this. (Joe Mud/Flickr)

Removing gel nails involves soaking them for at least 15 minutes in pure acetone. (Normal nail polish remover is about 95 percent acetone.) Then a nail technician scrapes off the remaining gel.

The acetone dehydrates your nail, so after removal, counter that moisture loss with something like petroleum jelly, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Whatever you do, don't try to peel off your gel nails yourself. They're really stuck to your nails from the curing process, and picking or peeling them off like normal polish can rip your fingernails.

Go natural once in a while

Nails are made up of keratin, and like your hair, they're dead. So while nail polish, gel manicures, and acrylics don't keep your nails from "breathing" (a common misconception), the process can dry them out. So whether you choose to go for gel manicures, acrylics, or standard polish, experts say to be sure to give your nails a break every now and then.