Could Your Manicure Habit Give You Cancer?

A new report shows that salon drying lamps can increase your risk of skin cancer. So how do you keep up those nails? We help you find the safest way.

(Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for 'Elle' Magazine)

May 6, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Melissa Walker has been the senior features editor at ELLEgirl and the prom editor at Seventeen. She freelances for many magazines including Glamour, Teen Vogue, Fitness, Redbook, Marie Claire and More. She is the author of seven young adult novels, the latest of which is Ashes to Ashes (HarperCollins).

One of my favorite indulgences as summer approaches is the mani-pedi, which can be had in my New York City neighborhood for a mere $24 if I pop in Monday through Wednesday. In the midst of all the which-pastel-for-my-fingers and which-neon-for-my-toes decision-making, what could darken this pampering experience? Well, a few things.

First, there’s a new report in JAMA Dermatology that says the drying lamps used in nail salons can increase our risk of skin cancer. It makes sense that the UVA light they emit is the same as that in tanning beds, but I never made the connection until reading this report. The risk isn’t super-high, and every drying lamp is different in terms of amount of UV exposure, but there is a risk with multiple manicure visits.

I don’t go weekly, so I should be OK, right? Wrong. Researchers estimate that for most of the lamps, even one drying session every three months could cause DNA damage to the skin. I am certainly hitting that number. Also, I usually press the drying button twice because it takes a while, and smudging a brand-new manicure is crazy frustrating.

The drying-lamp news made me curious about how to make sure I’m getting the safest, most eco-friendly mani-pedi possible. I know my best bet is probably a DIY mani-pedi, but the last time I tried that, one hand looked passable and the other looked like my two-year-old had attempted the process. Luckily, salons all over the place cater to the green crowd. I talked to green beauty expert Paige Padgett, an aesthetician and Hollywood makeup artist who’s committed to using high-quality, sustainable products, about the safest ways to get a manicure.

“Start with an Internet search, but don’t rely on the name of the salon or what you read online,” she says. In other words, "Green & Clean Nails” could be just a playful rhyme, not an eco-friendly designation. “Call them up and ask questions.” For example, find out if they do gels or acrylics—both are bad signs. “Those always involve harsh chemicals that you don’t want to breathe in,” Padgett says.

“Skip the paraffin dip—it’s filled with petrochemicals,” she says. Petrochemicals are chemical products derived from petroleum, which are bad news for you and the earth.

Padgett also suggests toting your own nail polish, but my favorite part of the whole process is choosing colors from the rainbow wall. She says that’s OK as long as I know what to look for: “five-free nail care. Make sure the salon has polishes that are free of toluene, formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, camphor, and phthalates.” Brands that Padgett approves of are Zoya, Jenna Hipp, Sheswai, Priti, and Scotch.

As for those drying machines, avoid them to be on the safe side. You know what to do: Wave your hands in the air, blow on your nails, and don’t touch anything for 20 to 30 minutes. It’s doable and worth it.