Gel 101: Everything You Need to Know about Gel Manicures


We all want our nails to look beautiful and flawless. However, life gets in the way of that – everyday tasks from washing your hands to cleaning your home and everything in between subjects your nails to wear and tear. And if you have a regular manicure, odds are that your hands don’t make it any longer than 24 hours without some sort of chip or messy blemish ruining your look.

Gel manicures (and the gel polish used to achieve their look) have revolutionized nail beauty. Because of its unique molecular formula, a professionally-applied gel manicure from a salon can sit on top of your nails for literally 2 weeks or more without a single chip or scratch.

Does this sound too good to be true? Well, there are some anti-gel people out there who say so. They cry foul of gel manicures, claiming everything from toxic chemicals to nail damage and even increased risks for skin cancer make gel manicures nowhere near worth the risk.

Below, we’ll go into the basics of the gel manicure. We’ll talk about how they started as a salon-only phenomenon, and how their growing popularity has put dozens of at-home manicure kits on the shelves of every drug store. We’ll even discuss the potential dangers, and give you all the facts you need to make a decision for yourself.

The Anatomy of a Gel Manicure

At first, you could only get a gel manicure in an actual beauty salon. Your manicurist would paint on a special colored nail gel and “cure” it under a UV light, sealing it to your nail. Because of the gel’s unique formula, the UV drying process made the polish super-hard and chip resistant. They were quick and convenient, because the curing process was much shorter than the drying times associated with typical nail polish. So for a few dollars extra, why not pamper yourself and walk out of the salon with nails that would remain perfect, glossy, and beautiful for two weeks or more?

Gel Manicures: The Risks

Some say “because cancer.” The science is a little muddled, though. Some insist that wearing anything less than a high SPF hand cream, UV-resistant gloves with the tips cut off the fingers, and UV-resistant sunglasses will raise your risk of skin cancer and macular degeneration (which can lead to cataracts and blindness). Others insist that, because the UV lamps used are so low-powered, it would take over 250 years of weekly salon visits to put you at a significant risk.

Other, less dramatic naysayers denounce gel manicures because of the damage done to your natural nails. For one, the removal process is brutal. You have to soak your hands in pure acetone and wrap them up in tinfoil like a baked potato for 15-20 minutes. The acetone not only disrupts oxygen transfer through the natural nail, but can soak into your blood stream. And you do not want acetone in your blood; it’s highly toxic. Unfortunately, this dangerous removal process is necessary. If you don’t get it removed the right way, or if you end up chipping your polish off instead, you’ll be ripping away the top layers of your natural nail with it.

Lastly, the opaque gel prevents you from seeing what’s going on with your nails (and nail beds). If you get a fungal or bacterial infection, you may not realize it until it’s too late. And by “too late”, we mean your nails could actually rot right off of your fingers! But only in extreme cases, of course.

The At-Home Gel Manicure Boom

Like any major beauty trend that starts in a salon, eventually someone will find a way to make money selling the “At-Home” version of that product. Gel manicures and polish are no different. Some companies sell the whole kits, including an LED curing light (they’re safer than UV lamps) and bottles of gel polish. However, for safety reasons, most of these kits don’t sell the “authentic” gel polish that you would get in a salon. Additionally, the LED lights are weaker than the UV lamps, so the polish doesn’t cure as well. Based on this, the average at-home manicure kit usually only lasts about a week before the polish begins to chip. On the plus side, though, you can wipe it off with regular nail polish remover, which limits your toxic acetone exposure.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide whether to gel, or not to gel. It’s quick, convenient, relatively affordable, and it will make your nails look flawless for weeks. It could, however, be bad for your natural nails and potentially dangerous for your health. But with spring upon us, risks or no, we expect to see beautiful hands everywhere sporting spring-colored, gelled nails. Will yours be one of them?