There are certain moments that stick with you: your first time behind the wheel, your first kiss, the first time you heard about gel manicures. It's possible that last one's just me. It was 2011, and I was sitting at the amber-lit manicure station of a beach-side spa in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, fingers steeping in lavender-scented water, listening to my friend explain to her nail technician that she was just getting the hand massage and moisturizer, no polish. "Yours already looks great," I said, glancing over that the sleek, candy-apple red sheen of her nails as my own sandblasted, sunscreen muddied polish was removed. "Thanks! I've had it on for two weeks!" she replied, holding out her hand for me to tap at the glossy, car-paint-like perfection, "It's gel."
That was just the beginning of a massive popularity explosion. Within a few months, everyone I knew was extolling the virtues of gel — how long it lasts, how it resists chipping, how it stays beautiful through the rigors of even the most extreme polish-punishing scenarios. But like every seemingly too-good-to-be-true beauty craze (remember Brazilian blowouts?), the creeping discussions of the downsides were inevitable. People were worried the arduous removal process could damage the nail bed, were concerned over the UV polish-curing lights contributing to skin cancer and complained about the hassle of having to go to a salon for gel instead of quicker, cheaper DIY options.
A lot has changed in the years since gel first hit it big. Formulas have shifted, techniques have changed, and the spectrum of options for those looking for a long-lasting mani has expanded beyond my 2011-self's wildest dreams. Here's everything you need to know about those changes.
About those UV rays:
One of the big question marks that drove some gel fans away was the fact that early gel formulas used UV lamps to cure and harden the gel into its magical shell-like state. In an age when tanning beds are fast going the way of the dodo, the idea of giving your fingertips a concentrated dose of UV light was a skin-care nut's nightmare. Some argued that the added UV exposure was minor for the average salon-goer; others said that any amount of fingertip tanning was a health risk. The debate helped inspire the nail industry to move away from classic UV lamps toward faster-curing LED — but that switch may have been more of a matter of re-branding than a major technology revolution.
"When the public hears 'LED,' they assume it's like the LED lights we use in our homes," says Dr. Dana Stern, a dermatologist specializing in nail health. "In order for [the LEDs] to work on gels they would need to be, by definition, in the UVA spectrum. Therefore, many people mistakenly believe these lamps do not use UVA to cure, when in fact they use higher intensities of UVA wavelengths in order to achieve the shorter curing times." Though Stern does note that the speed of the higher intensity UVA light means hands are exposed for less time, LED isn't the magic bullet of UV-free gel setting you might have expected.
Though there's no consensus on how big of a danger gel manicures pose in terms of UV exposure; the subject has been studied extensively over the past few years, according to Stern, but different lamps, curing times and the way the hands are positioned under the lights make it hard to come to a single easy answer. One thing we do know for certain is that UVA rays in particular contribute to signs of photoaging, like wrinkles and dark spots. The bottom line, says Stern, is that “anyone doing gel manicures needs to protect the skin with a UV protective barrier." She suggests fingertipless gloves made to cut down UV exposure during gel manicures (like the disposable YouVeeShield gloves or the washable Royal Nails version). You could also try applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen to your hands at least 15 minutes before they go under the light, though if there's water involved in your manicure, it might wash away before your hands make it under the lamp.
But traditional gel isn't your only option.
On the bright side (no pun intended), while LED may not have done away with UV concerns, that's not the only revolution that gel manicures have seen over the past few years. "Gel formulas continue to be designed for UV-curing (albeit UV light produced by special LEDs)," says cosmetic chemist Jim Hammer. "However, other gel-type formulas are being produced now that do not require UV light for curing. Instead, they have a second coat that contains a chemical that causes the same type of curing effect in the acrylic polymer coating," he explains. These types of formulas come into play in at home faux-gels, like Sally Hansen Miracle Gel and Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab Pro. Applied like normal nail polish, these multi-step systems contain base and top coats, which mesh to form a chemical reaction that hardens the polish and makes it durable beyond the bounds of what your average mani could do. These also have the perk of DIY-ability, making them a more time- and budget-friendly options, trading off the staying power of true gel with the ease of application and removal.
Here's what to know about removing gel polish:
Removal has always been a sticking point on gel manis (quite literally speaking). Modern gels, known as soak-off gels, are typically removed via a soak in 100-percent acetone, whereas older versions required files to bare the nail. Unfortunately, some salons give the two formulations the same treatment, utilizing files and other tools to speed the removal of soak-off gels. "I see a lot of nail damage in my office from gels that are aggressively removed," says Stern. "When gels are removed with electric tools or there is aggressive scraping, the nail plate also gets removed along with the gel, and this results in significant nail plate thinning."
Preventing major nail damage isn't a trick, though. The key, Stern says, is to make sure that your nail technician is following the polish manufacturer's instructions for removal, or take matters into your own hands. To remove a gel mani at home, Stern recommends placing a 100-percent acetone soaked cotton ball over each nail and then wrapping it in foil until the polish can easily be removed by simple rubbing or with a rubber-ended cuticle pusher. (For more on how to perfectly remove gel nail polish at home, read our explainer here.)
Stern also suggests using a post-gel treatment including a mild exfoliant, like her own Dr. Dana 3 Step Nail Renewal System, which uses glycolic acid to help slough away any separated nail cells that can lead to flaking and breakage and rehydrates nails. And, as with traditional manicures, giving your nails a break in between polishes is always a good idea.
Given you take the proper precautions to prevent UV damage and remove the polish gently, gel manicures don't have to be a guilty pleasure. In fact, Hammer assures us that when it comes to toxicity concerns –think all of those 5-, 7-, and even 9-free polishes you've seen cropping up on shelves — gel manicures might actually be better for you than your go-to bottle of traditional nail lacquer. "In general, gel polish formulas tend to be a lot safer than the traditional solvent-type coatings, because they're water solutions of acrylic polymer, instead of the old-style formulas with nitrocellulose and formaldehyde resins dissolved in toluene, acetone, plasticized with phthalates," he explains. "The new formulas don't have noxious fumes, aren't flammable and are less damaging to household items that they may come into contact with," he adds. Safety-wise, we'd call that a win.
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