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UV lights in nail salons may be associated with the risk of skin cancer. (Shutterstock)

Beauty procedures from manicures to cosmetic surgery carry risk — and the reward of a better life — podcast

Making yourself more beautiful can result in tangible, material rewards. Pretty privilege, as it is called, can lead to greater access to money and social capital, resulting in a better quality of life.

In Brazil, this understanding that beauty is important to one’s social status and mental and emotional well-being has prompted the state to subsidize cosmetic surgery. But this pursuit of beauty has a dark side and can often mean exposure to harm.

And this isn’t limited to extreme beautification practices, like extensive cosmetic surgery. People are also willing to endure potential risks in more mundane and everyday beauty treatments — like manicures.

In this episode of The Conversation Weekly, we speak to an anthropologist and a cancer researcher about the potential harm inherent in seeking beauty treatments.

The illusion of choice

Carmen Alvaro Jarrín is an associate professor of anthropology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, in the U.S. They research cosmetic surgery in Brazil and looked at how the state came to support access to cosmetic procedures as part of the delivery of health care. The plastic surgeon Ivo Pitanguy had campaigned for access to cosmetic surgery, arguing that everyone had the right to be beautiful.

“It surprised me how many of them get plastic surgery, and spend a lot of money on beauty because they see it as a way to attain upward mobility,” Jarrín said. Their book, The Biopolitics of Beauty: Cosmetic Citizenship and Affective Capital in Brazil, examined how beauty became a health right.

Many of those who access state-subsidized clinics cannot afford cosmetic procedures privately. And these clinics come with a risk — often they are used as training centres and many patients have experimental procedures tested on them, sometimes with drastic effects.


Read more: In Brazil, patients risk everything for the 'right to beauty'


“People believe that beauty gives you wealth. If you’re born poor and you’re beautiful, people think that it will give you upward mobility. Everybody was convinced that they would gain upper mobility,” Jarrín explains. “Anthropologists have noticed that the more unequal a society is, and the less upward mobility there is, the more that people will take to these magical means. In Brazil, beauty has that kind of magical quality to it.”

Access to cosmetic surgery promises better job opportunities and social mobility. In that context, seeking medical intervention to become more beautiful can be a rational choice.

‘Unreported World’ looks at access to cosmetic surgery for lower income women in Brazil.

The risk of exposure

It’s not just plastic surgery, or in Brazil, where the pursuit of beauty can carry an extreme price. The growing popularity of gel manicures, with their employ of UV lights, can also place people at risk.

In 2016, Karolina Jasko — the 2018 Miss Illinois — was diagnosed with a rare form of melanoma on her thumb nail. Her cancer had been triggered by exposure to UV lights in nail parlours from getting regular manicures.

Maria Zhivagui is a postdoctoral researcher in environmental toxicology and cancer genomics at the University of California, in the U.S. She recently co-authored a study on the impacts of using UV light to cure nail polish.

“We started hearing about a lot of cancer cases that developed from artificial UV lamp exposure,” Zhivagui said. “We found this UV nail machine that is used in nail salons and that has been linked to cancer in females, that occurs on the dorsum of the hand or on the nail and the finger. And that was a very rare cancer, we usually don’t observe it.”

Her team found that UV nail lamps can cause mutations in human and mice cells. Once she saw the effects, Zhivagui — who would often get manicures and would even do them herself at home — stopped using the UV lights.

“After seeing the effects on the mitochondria, on the DNA and cell death, I was like, no, this is very alarming,” she said. “And I stopped immediately getting exposed to these UV radiations in nail salons.”

While UV lights are widely used in nail salons, the devices are easy to acquire for home use. And as they become more widely accessible, it’s likely more people are exposing themselves to risk.


This episode was written and produced by Nehal El-Hadi and Mend Mariwany, who is also the executive producer of The Conversation Weekly. Eloise Stevens does our sound design, and our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also subscribe to The Conversation’s free daily email here.

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