Nail salon drying lights called skin cancer risk

Dermatologists say the UV lights used to dry nails following some manicure treatments pose a potential skin cancer risk.
The lights used to dry nails after Shellac treatments emit UV light, which has been linked to an increased skin cancer risk. (CBC)

Skin doctors say women should be aware of the cancer risks of using UV lights to dry nails after manicure treatments.

Shellac nail polish, a brand name registered by Creative Nail Design, has become increasingly popular in nail salons because it lasts longer than traditional nail treatments. Another selling point, but also the source of warnings from some dermatologists, is how the nails are dried.

A small UV light is used to dry and harden the nails, a process that takes only a few minutes. But the drying lights emit UV-A, the same kind of UV light found in tanning beds, which have been linked to an increased risk of skin cancer.

The drying lights are also moving outside of salons, with home units now available. Some of the home units use lights with higher wattages than those in salons.

Research published three years ago in the medical journal Archives of Dermatology looked at two cases in which middle-aged women developed skin cancer on their hands after repeated exposure to UV lamps.

Although anecdotal, the report raised alarms about the potential health risks posed by the drying lights.

Reduce exposure, doctor recommends

"The main concern is that the lights they're using to cure the nails are UV-A lights," dermatologist Dr. Julia Carroll told CBC’s Marivel Taruc. "Exposing yourself to this light we know increases your risk of skin cancer."

"My concern is that people don't know the lights are UV-A lights, and over time, these lights could increase your risk of skin cancer."

Carroll doesn’t advise abandoning Shellac treatments and in fact uses them herself. She does, however, recommend taking steps to reduce UV exposure.

One way is to apply a sun screen — preferably one that contains zinc or titanium — before heading to the salon.

A dermatologist who spoke to CBC News said fingerless gloves are one way to reduce UV light exposure during the post-manicure drying process. (CBC)

Wearing a pair of fingerless gloves during the drying process also offers some protection. Special gloves for the purpose are sold in stores but can also be easily made by snipping the tips off an old pair of gloves. 

"It’s just like the sun, just like a tanning bed, you want to decrease your exposure," said Carroll.

Maureen Snow had her nails done at Toronto's Urban Nails salon using gel nails, a different process than Shellac but one that also uses UV lights for drying. Snow said she's not overly concerned about the potential health risks.

"I’m in sales, so I like my nails to look nice all the time," she said. "There's a lot of things that could cause cancer. When they give some concrete proof, then yes, I'd do something about it, but right now I have no concerns."

Urban Nails owner Kevin Nguyen said about 75 per cent of his customers opt for the Shellac. He’s heard the health concerns, but also isn’t worried.

"They just only put [customers' hands] under the UV light two minutes, so every time only two minutes and the light, they turn off by themselves."

Nguyen has heard about new drying lights that emit less UV light. He’s considering switching to them as part of an upcoming renovation. 

With files from CBC's Marivel Taruc