Can gel manicures give you skin cancer? Top dermatologist explains

Gel manicures dry instantly, are resilient to chips, and last up to a month – weeks longer than a standard paint job. 

However, those glossy, strong tips may come with risks – such as infections, aging skin, and skin cancer. 

Studies on gel manicures are scant, largely given that technique varies wildly between salons. 

But dermatologists suggest taking some precautions to protect yourself either way. 

‘There’s enough for us to recommend to patients to protect their skin,’ Dr Chris Adigun, MD, a dermatologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina who wrote guidelines for the American Association of Dermatology, told 

Dermatologists can’t know for certain how gel manicures put you at-risk of cancer because each salon’s techniques vary, but there are some things we can be sure of, and ways to mitigate any risks 


Gel manicures are set using LED lamps that emit UVA rays. 

While UVB rays can give you a burn (as from the sun), UVA is the kind responsible for aging, skin damage, and cancer.

And though there are studies on gel manicures, it’s hard to quantify how well they reflect real life.  

‘The problem’ for understanding how risky gels are, Dr Adigun says, ‘is that there’s no standardization as to how this treatment is carried out from salon to salon.’

What we do know about skin cancer risk is based on the sun, not LED lamps placed at varying distances from our hands, sometimes once a year, once in a lifetime, once a month, or even every two weeks. 

‘There’s no one standing by your side saying, “time’s up!” in the salon,’ Dr Adigun says. ‘Most are probably getting a lot higher dose than we see in studies.’


Again, we don’t really know. But there are some mediating factors.

Genetics, pigmentation, and cancer history may all play a role – as with anything that increases the risk of skin cancer.

Medication is another thing to be aware of, and something many may not think of, Dr Adigun says.

Some types of chemotherapy or antibiotics can make you more susceptible to UVA rays and their effects. 

It stands to reason that those who get multiple gels a month would be at higher risk due to repetitive UV exposure. 

While there is no way dermatologists can definitively recommend a limit, Dr Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City says gel lovers should capitalize on the longevity of their manicures, for the sake of their health.

‘The benefit of gel manicures is that they last for several weeks at a time, so most people do not need to get them any more frequently than once per month,’ he told 


Of those that do wear protection to get their gels, there are a few popular techniques.

The most common are: nail-less gloves and sunscreen. 

Dr Adigun recommends the former. 

‘I recommend to cover up the skin, I don’t care if it’s gloves, a scarf, whatever it is, but something that is protective against UV rays,’ Dr Adigun says. 

There are too many issues with using sunscreen, she says.

First, ‘many take 20 minutes to be effective, and no one’s going to put it on then wait 20 minutes.’

Second, the whole procedure of getting a gel manicure (‘you have the massage, and the cuticle cutting’) may get in the way of putting your sunscreen on, and may even wipe off the protection you so diligently applied. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: sunscreen was not approved for use under LED lamps.

‘All of our sunscreens have been tested under rays similar to those emitted from our sun,’ Dr Adigun explains. 

‘The level emitted from UVA lamps is much higher than our sun so I don’t even know if they would be effective.’ 

Dr Zeichner also recommends gloves, but he is not opposed to the sunscreen idea. 

He says those particularly concerned about the risks can use sunscreen and speak with their manicurist about adjusting their technique so that it stays on. 

‘Make sure to apply a broad-spectrum high SPF sunscreen to your fingers, including the skin around the nails, to protect against the UVA light,’ Dr Zeichner told 


Acetone is used to take off the gel, which is tightly cured to the nail. 

One study suggests even one removal can drastically thin-out your nails.

But Dr Adigun does not recommend peeling them off manually. 

‘I’ve had more than one patient who’s peeled off all of their finger nails. They didn’t know they were removing their entire nail, but the gel was cured more tightly to their finger than to their nail.’