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What Your Nail Technician Doesn't Want You to Know About Gel Manicures

Gel manicures are arguably one of the most exciting beauty innovations of the last few years--a mani that lasts for two solid weeks without chipping and doesn’t require any dry time seems downright miraculous. But they have some pretty big downsides. We asked the experts to weigh in.
Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

Gel manicures are arguably one of the most exciting beauty innovations of the last few years--a mani that lasts for two solid weeks without chipping and doesn’t require any dry time seems downright miraculous. The technology is even popping up in do-it-yourself versions now--at-home gel mani kits are one of the reasons the nail care sector is having double digit growth this year according to WWD. But after we personally had some disastrous experiences with both the salon and at-home versions of gel manicures, we had to investigate further.

Not to be Debbie Downers here, but let’s forget the stunning, shiny long-lasting finish of these manis for a second (I mean, Michelle Obama’s trendsetting blue grey gel mani at the DNC looked fantastic) and talk about the dark--and horribly dried out--underbelly of gels. While these manicures look undeniably amazing, the UV exposure needed to set the gel and the potential damage to your nail beds are two big factors that can’t be ignored. We chatted with a nail expert and a dermatologist for their take.

UPDATE: Interested in the subject of gel manicure safety? Things have changed over the past few years since this article first appeared on Fashionista. For an updated take on what you need to know about the risks associated with (and alternatives to) gel polish — as well as the advances in technology in the field — read our more recent investigation here.  

First up: What about the UV exposure?

Photo: iStockPhoto

Photo: iStockPhoto

Is the UV Exposure an Issue?

The way gel manicures work is that the color is painted on and then “cured” underneath a UV light. This process is repeated several times per hand--it’s what makes the polish ultimately so hard and long-lasting. So is it bad for your skin to have your hands under a UV light?

Well, maybe. If we know anything from years of experience with commercial tanning beds, it’s that UV light exposure is definitely not good for you. And there’s some direct evidence that the UV light exposure you get from nail procedures is potentially dangerous. Dr. Heidi Waldorf, Director of Laser and Cosmetic Dermatology at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, told us, “There are two reported cases of skin cancers of the hand that were associated with regular UV nail dryer use.” A study commissioned by CND (yes, the nail polish company that makes the gel polish, Shellac) refuted the results of that study, but Dr. Waldorf still recommends taking precautions. “The problem is that UV damage is cumulative. So if you use the UV dryers now and again, it may not add up to much,” she said. “However, if you start with them on a regular basis in your 20's or 30's and continue, the risk will be higher.”

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To avoid any unnecessary exposure, Dr. Waldorf recommends you apply a water resistant sunscreen before you go for a treatment. “However, remember that it will not be fully effective--part of the gel manicure process is cleaning the nails and therefore the skin around the nails and the fingers with acetone,” she told us. “If they have to remove the prior gel manicure, fingers are soaked in acetone for at least 10 minutes. No sun protective product will last through it.”

Which brings us to our next issue--what your nails look like when the gel polish comes off.

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

Dry & Brittle & Cracked, Oh My!

Getting the gel off is a real bitch--it requires 10+ minutes of soaking in 100% acetone, either in a bowl or individually wrapped with foil. The gel is then scraped off after it softens. The condition of your nails afterwards is nothing short of horrifying. (And so is the price--in NYC a lot of nail salons charge you a whopping $10 just to remove gel polish.) Dhani, Nora and I have all failed at gel removal--Nora once tried an at-home gel system that even a nail salon couldn’t soak off. They had to resort to filing it off, which led to weakened nails that kept breaking for weeks. Mine are still peeling weeks after I got a gel mani before going to London for fashion week last month. Our intern, Zanele, actually bled after her gel started peeling, snagged on something and ripped her nails. She then had to stick her sore, bloody stumps (exaggeration by me) into pure acetone to get the gel off. Owwww.

Dry, brittle nails post gel is not an uncommon complaint apparently. Jin Soon Choi, an expert manicurist and designer fave who just launched her own line of nail polishes, isn’t a huge fan of gels. “I don't like the fact that they dry out the nail bed tremendously which, over time, makes your nails very brittle which makes them break off easily,” she told us.

However, she acknowledges that the durability is definitely a plus. Both she and Dr. Waldorf recommend saving gels for vacations or special occasions. And to prevent your nails from becoming a total mess, Choi told us, “Be sure to moisturize your nails and cuticles with Vitamin E oil constantly while you have gel on your nail.” To protect from the harsh, stripping effect of the pure acetone, use cuticle oil first to protect skin, then soak your tips afterwards in a bowl of vitamin E oil or coconut oil for some quick rehydration.

Any gel manicure horror stories or are you their biggest fan?