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Nail Manicure Dryers Cause Cell Death and DNA Damage

Cell-containing petri dishes sit under a UV lamp used for gel manicures.
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A new study from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) has called into question the safety of the ultraviolet (UV) light devices used to cure gel manicures. The research is published in Nature Communications.

A hidden cost of getting a manicure?

While it’s known that the UV light (280–400 nm) used in tanning beds can be carcinogenic, the spectrum of UV light used in nail polish dryers (340–395 nm) has not been well studied, despite how common they are in nail salons.

After reading about a beauty pageant contestant who was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer on her finger, the lead author of the new study, Dr. Ludmil Alexandrov, a professor of bioengineering and cellular and molecular medicine at UCSD, wanted to understand whether the UV light from nail polish dryers may have contributed.

“We noticed a number of reports in medical journals saying that people who get gel manicures very frequently – like pageant contestants and estheticians – are reporting cases of very rare cancers in the fingers, suggesting that this may be something that causes this type of cancer,” said Alexandrov. “And what we saw was that there was zero molecular understanding of what these devices were doing to human cells.”

To assess what damage exposure to the UV dryers could cause, Alexandrov and colleagues used 3 different cell lines in their experiment: mouse embryonic fibroblasts, adult human skin keratinocytes and human foreskin fibroblasts. Cells were exposed to either one 20-minute session under the dryer or 3 consecutive 20-minute sessions. A control group was also included in the study.

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After 1 session under the UV light, 20–30% of the cells exposed died, which increased to 65–70% after 3 consecutive sessions. In the living cells, the researchers identified signs of mitochondrial and DNA damage, Alexandrov explained: “We saw multiple things: first, we saw that DNA gets damaged,” he said. “We also saw that some of the DNA damage does not get repaired over time, and it does lead to mutations after every exposure to a UV nail polish dryer. Lastly, we saw that exposure may cause mitochondrial dysfunction, which may also result in additional mutations. We looked at patients with skin cancers, and we see the exact same patterns of mutations in these patients that were seen in the irradiated cells.”

Should we be worried?

Although other products use UV light in the same spectrum, such as some hair removal treatments, Alexandrov and colleagues are concerned by how often people get gel manicures The information from this study may encourage consumers to try the alternatives.

However,  future studies to identify the frequency of UV nail polish dryer use that might be harmful could take decades to complete.

“Our experimental results and the prior evidence strongly suggest that radiation emitted by UV-nail polish dryers may cause cancers of the hand and that UV-nail polish dryers, similar to tanning beds, may increase the risk of early-onset skin cancer,” the researchers write. “Nevertheless, future large-scale epidemiological studies are warranted to accurately quantify the risk for skin cancer of the hand in people regularly using UV-nail polish dryers. It is likely that such studies will take at least a decade to complete and to subsequently inform the general public.”

Reference: Zhivagui M, Hoda A, Valenzuela N, et al. DNA damage and somatic mutations in mammalian cells after irradiation with a nail polish dryer. Nat Commun. 2023;14(1):276. doi: 10.1038/s41467-023-35876-8.

This article is a rework of a press release by the University of California San Diego. Material has been edited for length and content.