Can Gel Nail Polish Dryers Cause Cancer?

Researchers found that exposing human cell tissue culture to 20 minutes of UVA radiation led to the death of 20 to 30 percent of the cells, and damage to those that did survive

Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev
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מחקר לק ג'ל  UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering - David Baillot
A gel nail polish drying device using UVA radiation.Credit: UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering - David Baillot
Gid'on Lev
Gid'on Lev

Six years ago, a teenage beauty pageant contestant from Chicago discovered a black line under one of her fingernails. Three years later, it turned out that the stripe was a cancerous growth. Dermatologists suspected that the source was the ultraviolet radiation used to dry gel nail polish at beauty salons, which the young woman said she visited once or twice a month over the course of several years.

A new study published this month in the journal Nature Communications reinforces concerns that the devices used to dry gel nail polish may in fact be dangerous. It was found that use of the dryer causes the death of human cells. In those cells that do not die, meanwhile, it leads to an increase in the rate of mutation – which is liable to lead to cancer.

The sun generates ultraviolet radiation, which is divided into three types: UVA, UVB and UVC. The third type, UVC, is the most dangerous, but does not make its way to Earth as the atmosphere blocks it out. UVB radiation is found at a spectrum of between 280 and 315 nanometers, and is considered relatively dangerous to humans. UVA radiation (found between 315 and 400 nanometers) is considered the least dangerous as it possesses the smallest quantity of energy.

An ultraviolet nail polish drying device.Credit: UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering - David Baillot

Drying devices in nail salons use UVA and have been considered safe – until now.

The idea of carrying out the study occurred to Prof. Ludmil Alexandrov of the University of California San Diego when he came across the story of the beauty pageant contestant. He began to look deeper into the subject and found a number of reports in medical journals about the appearance of rare types of cancer in the fingers of individuals receiving regular manicures with gel nail polish. Nevertheless, he could not find an explanation for the drying devices’ effect on human cells at the molecular level.

The trial was conducted on human cell tissue culture, as well as on the cells of mice. It was found that 20 minutes of exposure to UVA radiation led to the death of 20 to 30 percent of the cells. In addition, exposure to the radiation damaged the DNA of those cells that did survive – reminiscent of people with skin cancer.

Addressing the new study, cancer researcher Dr. Tomer Cooks from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva, said: “In recent years, concerns have been raised regarding the nail polish dryers making use of UV light to harden gel nail, potentially inflicting damage to the DNA in the client’s skin – thus increasing the risk for skin cancer.

“In the new study, researchers focused on the specific radiation spectrum generated by the drying machines, in an attempt to mimic the doses of radiation to which clients are exposed. This is the first attempt to assess and characterize the damage that these lamps are liable to cause, in order to raise awareness about this subject,” he added.

It is difficult to find alternatives to these drying machines, Cooks said, due to their effectiveness in speeding up the hardening of the nail polish. But, he added, the risk of DNA damage increases the more a client visits a beauty salon. “At present, clients try to avoid cumulative damage by applying sunscreen lotion to the fingers or by wearing special gloves that cover the skin around the fingernails,” he said.

A researcher at the University of California San Diego who studied the UV light-emitting devices.Credit: UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering - David Baillot

One noteworthy finding concerns the important molecular role assigned in the process to the mitochondria – organelles found within the cell enabling energy generation.

Cooks said it was found that exposure to the UV radiation causes mitochondria in the cell to generate high levels of free radicals, resulting in increased levels of mutations that appeared in the nuclear DNA.

He stressed that the study was conducted on cells grown in Petri dishes, which behave differently in comparison to skin cells in the human body. “This is an initial attempt to make general observations, and future studies will be able to continue along this route and use more complex systems,” he said.

In the article itself, the researchers, headed by Alexandrov, noted that the findings relate to cells in tissue culture and not living body tissue, and therefore further research is needed to determine whether use of the drying devices is actually causing an increased cancer risk – in particular concerning infrequent treatments.

The researchers noted that it would take at least a decade until the requisite studies are completed and clear conclusions could be drawn.

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