UV/LED Nail Lamps: Are They Safe?

Hello dear readers,

I’ve had many people tell me that they want to try gel polish but have heard that the UV/LED lamps used to cure it causes skin cancer, thank you Dr Oz and mainstream media! Now, I’m not a scientist, chemist or professional nail technician, I’m just a DIYer who likes be informed and I’m somewhat of a geek and the science part kind of fascinates me, so I set out to find more information about the possible risks of UV/LED lamp exposure. The purpose of this post is not say that UV/LED lamps are perfectly safe or that they definitely cause cancer. You know what is best for you and your skin, I simply want to provide you with some more information than you may already know about so you can make a more informed decision. Here is what I learned.

The Science:
UV and LED lamps both emit ultraviolet rays. Here is a graph of the electromagnetic spectrum. 


UV/LED lamps utilize the UV-A part of the spectrum to cure the gel with very little or no part of the UV-B and none of the UV-C used. UV lamps use a broader area of the spectrum while LED lamps use a narrower area as illustrated by the graph below.

The Reports and Studies:

In 2009 a report was published that sited the cases of 2 Texas woman that had developed skin cancer on the fingers. The report went on to attribute the cause of the cancer to the women’s exposure to UV nail lamps. One women had been getting acrylic nail services and gel topcoat twice monthly for 15 years and the other woman had 8 UV lamp exposures in 1 year before she developed skin cancer a few years later. Read full report here.

In response to the 2009 report, 3 expert chemists, Doug Schoon, Paul Bryson and Jim McConnell came out with their own report stating their findings that UV nail lamps (they did not test any LED lamps) have a very low skin cancer risk, stating that the exposure from UV nail lamps was equivalent to spending an additional 1.5 to 2.7 minutes in natural sunlight per day between nail services. Their paper states that the 2009 report incorrectly compares nail lamp exposure to that of tanning beds and makes other incorrect assumptions. It should be noted that all 3 of the chemists work for companies that manufacture gel products and UV lamps, CND, OPI and Light Elegance, respectively. Read full report here.  

And finally, this December 2013 paper from the Journal of Investigative Dermatology shows the results from their testing of UV/LED lamps. They tested 3 devices, a UV lamp with two 9 watt bulbs, a UV lamp with four 9 watt bulbs and an LED lamp with six 1 watt LED bulbs. They compared the UV output of the lamps to the UV output from a typical treatment course of a narrowband UVB phototherapy device (these emit UV-B rays and are used for therapy for certain skin diseases like psoriasis and eczema). In a nutshell, they found that it would require 13,000 10 minute sessions of the the UV lamps and 40,000 10 minute sessions of the LED lamp to equal the same UV dosage from the phototherapy device or more simply put, it would require over 250 years of weekly UV/LED lamp sessions to equal the same UV risk. They concluded that the lamps did not produce a clinically significant risk of skin cancer. The report also points out the incorrect and misleading methods and conclusions from the previous 2 papers. Read full report here.

I know that’s a lot of scientific stuff to take in but hopefully this information is enough to provide a different perspective on the UV exposure controversy.

If you are still concerned about your UV exposure, there are some steps you can take to further protect yourself.

1. Limit UV lamp exposure to 1-2 times per month.

2. Use an LED lamp. Cure times are shorter thus reducing UV exposure.

3. Apply a broad spectrum sunscreen (protects from UV-A and UV-B rays) to your hands before using your lamp.

4. Wear UV protecting gloves

I hope you have this helpful. I welcome any comments or questions you have. 



2 comments on “UV/LED Nail Lamps: Are They Safe?

  1. allblingLesley

    Thanks Kim. Shared already. 😉 I had someone ask me about this just last week. Now I have something to show her.

  2. Renee Albera

    Kim, I wanted to discuss with you some of your conclusions you have drawn in your article “UV/LED Nail Lamps: Are They Safe?’ There is an impression by many the LED lamps emit less UV, therefore they are “safer”. Let me say, first of all, I love gel manicures & I have my nails done every two weeks. I also protect my skin during this service, as I do when I go outside. UV is cumulative, therefore it is important to limit your exposure to insure the health of your skin. We know this already. Whether the amount of UV emitted from the lamps is a little or a lot, it should be avoided. That said, if I may speak to your article.
    The 2009 report was published as an Observation, not a scientific study. It was written 6 years ago & it has been established this Observation was flawed. There have been two other more recent studies however, performed by individuals not associated with the beauty industry. The first one was published in the JAAD, in December 2013, “Acrylic nail curing UV lamps: High-intensity exposure warrants further research of skin cancer risk.” The conclusion of this study was “in less than 10 minutes, a person’s hands receive an energy dose equivalent to the day-long recommended limit for outdoor workers.” “The lamps emitted 4.2 times more energy between 355 nm and 385 nm than the sun.” The second was a research letter published in JAMA Dermatology. The amount of UVA being emitted from 17 nail lamps was measured. It was determined it would “take multiple visits to reach the threshold limit for potential DNA damage”. Of the 17 nail lamps examined, 13 of them would result in this threshold limit value for potential DNA damage in as few as 10 sessions.
    The last study published in 2013 & commissioned by the NMC also measured the irradiance of commonly used nail lamps. This study measured 3 UV lamps & 3 LED lamps. A few things need to be mentioned about this study. 1. Dr. Sayre & Dr. Dowdy measured the UVA, UVB & the UVC being emitted from the lamps. As we already know, only UVA is being emitted. By using this “weighted” function to measure the irradiance, it ends up mitigating the amount of the UVA. Publishing the “unweighted” UVA irradiance would have been more informative. 2. The conclusions they drew still classified the lamps into the Moderate Risk 2 category. This is the highest risk category of lighting sources allowed for general use which is significant in itself. 3. When this particular study was “summarized” it was noted “…these lamps “properly belong in the least risky of all categories.” In the Sarye/Dowdy study, this statement was in reference to the risk to one’s eyes, not one’s skin. When measuring the “weighted” irradiance of these lamps in relationship to their “Hazard to skin at intended use distance classified these devices into Risk Group 1 or 2.” (Please note only one lamp fell into the Risk Group 1 and that was a single finger unit LED lamp, not a lamp commonly used).
    The study you reference published in 2012 in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, examined 3 nail lamps. As per the authors, “We elected to compare UV nail lamp irradiance with exposure of narrowband UVB used for phototherapy.” This is an odd point of comparison don’t you think, when the phototherapy treatments use UVB light, not UVA? We already know the lamps do not emit UVB light, so what was the point of this study or the resulting conclusions? I would venture to say, not much other than giving the public a false sense of security when one hears it would take 250 years of weekly UV nail sessions to experience the same risk exposure to UVB light, “The bulbs used in UV nail lamps contain special internal filters that remove almost all UVB,” as per Lighting Sciences, the lab which performed a study in 2010 and one in 2013 for the NMC.
    You recommend using a broad spectrum sunscreen if one is still concerned. However, not all “broad spectrum sunscreens” actually effectively block UVA light. Plus, in order for it to work, if one manages to choose the correct sunscreen, you have to wait 20 minutes before putting your hands in the lamp. The NMC actually advises against this solution anyway, due to the possibility of the nail plate being compromised by some amount of sunscreen getting on it. LED lamps, which do have the shorter curing times, use higher intensities of UVA light and are classified under the Moderate Risk 2 category, as specified above. Lastly, the fingerless gloves you featured are expensive, $29.00, and one must remember to bring them into the salon each visit. Like the disposable flip flops the salon offers to customers who have forgotten their thongs, there needs to be an inexpensive, disposable shield in the salon that can SHIELD customers each visit.
    One part of this issue you did not address and I will now is the possibility that if a customer is photosensitive for any reason, they must be provided with protection.
    This is mentioned in the standards that were used to determine the photobiological safety of these lamps. As per the ANSI/IESNA RP-27.1-05 standard “Recommended Practice for Photobiological Safety for Lamps and Lamp Systems –General Requirements (which was one of the standards used in the Sarye & Dowdy report referenced above, as well) it states, “The ultraviolet exposure limits represent conditions under which it is believed that nearly all individuals in the general population may be repeatedly exposed without adverse health effects. However, they do not apply to photosensitive individuals or to individuals concomitantly exposed to photosensitizing agents. Such individuals, in general, are more susceptible to adverse health effects from optical radiation…” , in the report published by Sayre & Dowdy, “Phototoxicity, photoallergy and UV hypersensitivity can also present problematic scenarios from even low level UV skin exposures such as these,” and by the ICNIRP who published guidelines on limits of exposure to UV radiation, “…if individuals are concomitantly exposed to photosensitizing agents, a photosensitizing reaction can take place. It should be emphasized that many individuals who are exposed to photosensitizing agents (ingested or externally applied chemicals, e.g., in cosmetics, foods, drugs, industrial chemicals, etc.) probably will not be aware of their heightened sensitivity.” And lastly, in the nail manufacturers manuals themselves, this information is stipulated as above.
    Kim, I want to apologize for sending this long response. However, you have done so much more due diligence than almost everyone else I have ever found, I thought you might really be interested in the information I have shared with you. I would be happy to discuss any of it with you, at any time. Best, Renee