Harsh chemicals aside, gel manicures mean your nails are being exposed to scraping and sanding and other potentially unsafe procedures—so we checked in with the experts for what you need to know before your next salon visit.
When your schedule seems to be permanently crammed with to-dos, it’s easy to get addicted to rituals that’ll ensure your days go as snag-free as possible. While most rituals are of the good-for-you variety (like your afternoon cup of matcha tea that boosts your energy level and loads you up with heaps of antioxidants), others might do more good for your day planner than for your health—like your gel manicure.
But who are we to resist them? Perfectly shaped and polished nails that are virtually indestructible are understandably irresistible for those who appreciate the glamour of lacquered nails and don’t want to have to worry about chipping. However, like any beauty treatment, a gel mani could bring with it some health risks. Whether you get yours done back-to-back or once every couple of months, the safeness of the procedure—from the polish-hardening lamps to the harsh removal of the polish—has surely crossed your mind.
And so, to find out if your gel manicures are doing you more harm than time-saving good, we reached out to certified dermatologist Dr. Lisa Kellett and THE TEN SPOT® CEO and Creator Kristen Gale for their answers to your questions.
First of all, gel, shellac, bio gel—what's the difference?
"Gel is a type of polish, and Shellac is a brand," says Gale. "A typical 'fake nail' with gel polish is a Hard Gel or a Bio Gel polish extension—something we don't offer at THE TEN SPOT®." Shellac polishes (and also OPI gel polishes) are called "soak off" and are applied directly on natural nails, making them a gentler option.
What are the potential side effects of a gel manicure?
We’ve learned (and seen the proof) that gel manicures can lead to thinner nails, which means they can break more easily—and that's typically the only side effect, but it could get more serious than that. “They can cause temporary and sometimes permanent damage to the nail plate and the surrounding skin and potentially infections and allergic reactions,” says Dr. Kellett. To prevent damage, it’s important to pay attention to the state of your nails. If you’re considering back-to-back treatments, Gale suggests mentioning any concerns to your esthetic expert so they can assess your nails. Be sure you’re going to a salon and a manicurist you trust, and they’ll suggest taking a break from gel polish if your nails aren’t in a healthy state.
Are there any studies that show the light that hardens the polish causes premature aging, sunspots, skin cancer etc.?
At one time, certain polishes required the use of UV lamps, which “can lead to premature aging, sunspots and skin cancer,” says Dr. Kellett, but they aren’t common anymore. Nowadays, most professional salons use LED lights, which are safer and aren’t associated with such risks.
How can I keep my nails healthy and repair them in between gel manicures?
Staying hydrated and moisturizing your nails and the surrounding skin helps keep them healthy and will also help your manicure last longer. When it comes time to remove the polish, make sure it’s done properly. Do you peel or pick at your nails? “You might be damaging your nails by removing the top layer of nail along with the polish,” says Gale. “It’s always best to have it removed professionally.” Take a break from gel manicures if you feel your nails are thin, brittle, or breaking a lot or peeling, and apply a nail strengthener or conditioner. Gale recommends Nail Tek.
Why do my nails hurt when I don’t have any polish on them?
If you’re used to having polish on your nails at all times, you may notice a dull pain on unpolished nails a few hours after removal. It could be nothing, but it could be more serious. “Pain in the nail bed or nail area can be indicative of a medical issue and thus consultation with a dermatologist is of paramount importance as nails changes can be a hallmark of systemic disease,” says Dr. Kellett.
What if my nails hurt during the polish removal process?
If you get Bio Gel, a Dremel tool can be used to remove the polish, and can quite easily buff too much and damage the nail plate—another reason to choose a soak-off gel polish instead. Light buffing and scraping is generally necessary for the removal of the soak-off variety too, but it shouldn't cause harm or discomfort. If it does, it could mean your nails are thin. Gale advises to let the manicurist know it’s painful so they can be more gentle. Take this as a cue to give your nails a little extra care by taking a break from a gel manicure and opting for a few coats of nail strengthener for a few weeks or months.
Is there an at-home polish with a gel-like effect that’s gentle on nails?
Gale is a fan of the gel couture collection from Essie. “We know, we know—it says gel in the name, but it’s not!” says Gale. "It’s a quick-dry option that’s formulated to have gel-like longevity but comes off as easy as regular polish."