Sept. 26, 2011 -- For Cleo Everett of Palm Springs, Calif., a quick trip to the nail salon is a special treat.
"I'm terrible with my nails, always have been," Everett told ABC News affiliate KESQ. "So to me, nail shops like this, they're just a treat."
But to keep it quick, Everett hardens the layers of lacquer under an ultraviolet nail dryer -- a shortcut that exposes her hands to the same skin-damaging UV rays emitted by the sun and tanning beds. Although the intensity is much less than that of a tanning bed, some experts say enough exposure over time could increase the risk of skin cancer.
"Ultraviolet exposure is cumulative," said Dr. Darrell Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center. "Like a meter in a taxicab, it only goes forward. And the faster you go, the faster the meter goes."
Chronic, low-level UV exposure can cause basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma -- the commonest forms of skin cancer often seen in people who spend a lot of time outside. When spotted early the cancers easy to treat, unlike melanoma -- a rare skin cancer caused by acute high-level UV exposure, also known as sunburn.
"You could keep you hands in a UV nail dryer for an hour and not get a sunburn," said Rigel. "But it's still UV exposure, and you want to minimize that as much as you can."
A 2009 report published in Archives of Dermatology detailed two cases of non-melanoma skin cancer on the hands of women who frequented the nail salon -- a 55-year-old with a 15-year history of twice-monthly appointments and a 48-year-old who went eight times in one year several years before her diagnosis. Both women had cancer on the backs of their fingers, leading the report authors to suspect UV nail lamps as a possible trigger.
UV nail dryers are most often used to "cure" gel nails, but they're also used to harden some acrylic nails and traditional polishes. A standard dryer has four 9-watt bulbs emitting a small fraction of the skin damaging UV rays of a 60 200-watt bulb tanning bed. But for nail salon regulars or people who have UV dryers at home, the exposure can add up.
"…We know that UV light increases your risk of cancer (and wrinkles), and if you're going to the nail salon every two weeks (or weekly), that will add up to significant exposure," Dr. Roshini Raj, assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, wrote in her book, "What the Yuck?! The Freaky and Fabulous Truth About Your Body." "My two cents? Use them sparingly, or, better yet, let your nails dry on their own. It may take a bit longer, but it's worth the effort to save your skin."
Everett said she's willing to spend a little extra time at the salon to avoid the unnecessary UV exposure.
"I'm flexible, so there is always an alternative," she told KESQ. "So I think that's how you have to look at it. It's your choice, what are you going to do?"