It's been said a thousand times before -- some things are just too good to be true.
The latest example: gel manicures. In recent years, they've become the mani of choice for many because of their shiny, long-lasting look, the result of using an ultraviolet or LED light to cure, or harden, the nail polish. On average, women can go for 10 days to two weeks before a follow-up visit to the salon is necessary.
Board-certified dermatologist Chris Adigun, an assistant professor at New York University, reported last month at an American Academy of Dermatology meeting that women who regularly get gel manicures are putting themselves at risk for skin cancer and aging, nail brittleness and fungal or bacterial infections.
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"These are very much like tanning beds, these ultraviolet light units that people put their hands in," says Diane Inserra, a dermatologist with Allegheny General Hospital. "It increases your risk for melanoma."
To avoid the potentially damaging UV light rays, some encourage people to go to salons that use LED lights instead. But even they don't entirely eliminate these risks, says Suzan Obagi, director of the UPMC Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center.
"We look at three types of ultraviolet: UV C, UV B and UV A," she says. "UV C, for the most part, is filtered out just by the atmosphere. ... It never actually reaches our bodies. UV B rays are the ones that are powerful and can cause burns in the skin."
UV B is more prominent in the spring and summer months. UV A, however, is constant in light year round and is responsible for the bulk of skin cancer and aging, Dr. Obagi says.
"All of these [manicure] lamps are emitting UV A."
Because gel manicures are fairly new, the extent of their effects won't be fully known for another decade or more. But, like any other form of photo damage to the skin, the impact likely will accumulate and become more noticeable with time.
Aside from the light chamber, the potent chemicals that are used in gel manicures to remove the hardened polish can damage the surface of the nail plate. "Some studies have shown almost 50 percent of the nail plate is removed with each removal of the gel nail manicure," Dr. Inserra says.
The scraping and peeling maneuvers used to take off polish also can cause tears to the cuticle, causing microscopic breaks in the nail unit that can make a person more prone to contracting a fungal or bacterial infection.
"The cleanliness of the salon also plays a big part [protecting against infections]," Dr. Obagi says. "Don't just bargain hunt. Look for a salon that abides by proper hygiene standards to sterilize equipment."
Despite these warnings, doctors don't expect women to give up gel manicures altogether. Instead, they should be vigilant about when and where they get them and take steps to minimize harm.
Try to limit gel manicures to about one per month, Dr. Obagi recommends. To lessen light exposure, slip on a pair of UV-protecting mitts with the finger tips cut out or rub suntan lotion onto hands (avoiding the nails) before polish is applied.
"As is the case with most things, moderation is the key when it comes to gel manicures," Dr. Adigun says in a release. "If you get them regularly, you need to be aware of the possible consequences."
Sara Bauknecht: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SaraB_PG. First Published April 23, 2013 4:00 AM