Medically reviewed by Cynthia Cobb, DNP, APRN, WHNP-BC, FAANP — Written by Mathieu Rees
Gel manicures use high levels of UV radiation to set a special gel into an individual’s nails. Although there is little evidence that this can cause serious conditions such as skin cancer, some research suggests that pain and nail damage are common side effects of gel manicures.
Manicures are cosmetic procedures to alter the appearance of a person’s nails.
This article examines what gel manicures are and discusses health and safety considerations. It also summarizes existing research comparing gel manicures and traditional acrylic nails.
What is a gel manicure?
As a 2018 article explains, gel manicures use a type of light-sensitive gel. This gel acts as nail polish but has special properties that differentiate it from acrylic nail polishes.
In particular, the gel will only properly set upon exposure to certain light sources. For this reason, individuals who want a gel manicure must ask nail technicians to use a special light or use this light themselves. These lights usually use high intensity UV radiation.
People can purchase at-home gel manicure kits, including several gels and a special lamp source. The specific details of this procedure, such as the number of sessions needed per month and the time each session takes, vary from product to product.
There is no scientific data about the details of at-home gel manicures. However, evidence from 2020Trusted Source shows that between 2010 and 2011, the average nail salon customer received between 1–4 gel manicures per month, with each manicure lasting between 6–10 minutes.
The majority of gel manicure light units emit high intensity UVA radiation, and there is some concern about whether these might pose a skin cancer risk. Due to UV radiation, artificial tanning in salons poses a significant risk for skin cancer.
However, the same 2020 review did not find a link between regular gel manicures and skin cancer. Moreover, individuals can easily lower their risk of developing skin cancer from these light sources by applying sunscreen before their gel manicure.
A 2020 study recorded the experiences of 2,118 women who have used gel manicures. The study authors reported the following major results:
- Applying the manicure: Around 8.3% of the study group reported side effects while applying the polish. Among those individuals, around 50.4% reported either pain or burning sensations.
- Wearing the manicure: Around 20% of the study group reported side effects while wearing the polish. Out of those, 9.6% reported an itch, and 9.6% reported pain or burning sensations.
- Post manicure: Around 75% of the study group reported side effects after removing the polish. Among those individuals, 30.3% reported decreased nail toughness, and 24.7% reported splitting nails.
Although these findings may be unreliable due to the self-reporting methodology, they suggest some possible concerns with gel manicures.
Vs. other manicures
A 2018 study notes that acrylic nails and gel nails harbor more bacteria than natural nails. Although both types produce the same number of bacteria, it may be harder for people to properly clean gel nails than acrylic nails.
However, due to the study’s small sample size, more research is needed on the connection between different manicures and hygiene.
A 2016 study reports that it might be harder to remove gel than acrylic, making gel nail removal more likely to cause damage to the nails. The study associates the removal process with:
- nail thinning and weakness
- white spots on nails known as pseudoleukonychia
- nail splitting
At-home gel manicure
There is currently no scientific evidence to distinguish the health effects of at-home gel manicures from salon gel manicures. While salon gel manicure providers may operate with stricter health standards than people who apply gel manicures at home, the research has yet to determine whether this is the case.
Gel manicures are a popular form of cosmetic nail treatment. They use a special light-sensitive gel to achieve their effects. Although the process does expose people to some UV radiation, there is no evidence that this increases the risk of skin cancer.
However, gel manicures may have other side effects, such as pain or a burning sensation during the application. The removal process may also result in people having damaged nails.