Cancer risk posed by nail salons’ UV lights: Putting it in perspective

May 1, 2014 | by

An increased risk of skin cancer seems a high price to pay for quickly dried fingernails – and yet a recent study suggests that’s what you get with repeated use of ultraviolet, or UV, lamps used at nail salons.

UV risk and nail salons

The UV lights used at nail salons may pose a slightly increased risk of cancer, but the operative word is "slightly."

The lamps-and-fingernails study, published April 30 in JAMA Dermatology, was a natural headline-grabber:

24 Visits to the Nail Salon Could Trigger Skin CancerTime

Could drying your nails at the salon give you cancer?Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Nail salon UV lamps: Are they safe? – CBS News

But the study – and the reaction to it – may shed as much light on the perception of risk as it does on the risk of skin cancer.

City of Hope experts discussed both at our recent "Cancer Urban Legends: Fact or Fiction?" Ask the Experts presentation. The topics reflected the cancer myths, rumors and worries experienced by the average consumer and, perhaps unsurprisingly here in well-manicured Southern California, the risk posed by nail salon lights was one of those concerns.

“Do UV lights used at a nail salon to dry nails cause cancer?” asked moderator Linda H. Malkas, Ph.D., deputy director of basic research and a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

The silent pause said much – as did the “Oh, boy, how are we going to explain this?” laughter from the panel members:

Wang gamely gave it a shot. “I don’t think there have been proper studies that have looked at UV lights and nail beds … or cancer of the fingers,” she begins, clearly distinguishing between risk of cancer and incidence of cancer. “That being said, indoor tanning is a very real exposure that is associated with skin cancer and the UV rays that can be used in some of the nail salons are similar.”

So, she continued, “I think that there is some scientific plausibility that the UV rays would cause cancer.”

Lacey picked up the thread of limited risk and elaborated. “If there were a huge increased risk in cancer, then we should see it by now,” he said, pointing out that nail salons have become nothing short of ubiquitous in the past 20 years or so.

“If it were such a strong risk factor, like smoking is for lung cancer, then we would have seen it in our studies,” he said. “So we can find some reassurance in the fact that we haven’t seen an epidemic of cancer of the fingernails even though use of those UV lights in nail salons has gone up a lot.”

Added Alvarnas: “Just because something sounds reasonable, doesn’t make it true,” he says. (In other words “potentially increased risk” does not mean “you’re in big trouble.”)

Ultimately, Wang put the concern about UV lights at nail salons into this easy-to-understand perspective: “I would be much more worried about indoor tanning and going to the beach without sunscreen on.”

As for the study, CBS News summed it up succinctly: “Overall, a single nail polish drying session under one of the lamps would not expose a person to a potentially cancer-causing amount of UVA light … and even with numerous exposures, the risk for carcinogenesis remains small."

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Watch the full "Cancer Urban Legends" presentation to hear the full conversation. You can also watch past Ask the Experts programs on City of Hope's YouTube channel.

And watch the video "Cancer Urban Legends." It sums up, quite nicely, what scientists know about cancer risk and prevention.

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Learn more about skin cancer treatment and skin cancer research at City of Hope.