If you’re even a little bit of a polish addict, gel manicures can seem like nail nirvana. What’s not to love? The ultra-quick-drying polish lasts for weeks without chipping, losing its sheen, or dulling out. The color options are still a bit basic, but no matter—if you’re in the market for a long-lasting manicure, gels are the way to go. “
Gel polishes paint on like traditional nail lacquer, but they have a chemical composition that enables them to immediately harden to a glossy finish when cured under a UV light,” says Dr. Dana Stern, a NYC-based dermatologist specializing in nail disorders. “You won’t need to sit and dry your nails—plus the finish lasts up to three weeks.”
Sounds like a dream—except, it's not. The issue? These pretty little manis can cause serious damage. “The UV light that cures the product is in the same spectrum that contributes to photo-aging,” says Dr. Stern. “They’re essentially little tanning beds.” The threat of dark sunspots on your hands (and possibly skin cancer, with prolonged, repetitive exposure) is off-putting enough—but the most immediate damage comes from the way gel polish is removed; by soaking it off with acetone for a minimum of ten minutes (far longer than the time needed for traditional polish). “This can cause massive damage to the nail and cuticle. Beyond causing nails to weaken, split and sometimes lift, it can cause an eczema-like rash.”
On top of the acetone removal, some salon technicians also scrape off the gels with a file, stick or sander, which can be ruinous to nails. Especially if you take matters into your own hands. “The worst damage is when the polish begins to chip and women are traveling or unable to get to a salon—and they peel or file off the gels, themselves,” says Jane Park, CEO and founder of Julep Nail. “This often takes the top layer of the nail plate off with the polish. The nail then becomes dull, frayed and susceptible to water damage.” All of this trauma can cause permanent damage to the nail plate—which is a pain, since it can take months to grow out a healthy new plate. “Plus, polish chips off faster on weak, thin nails, so it can become a vicious cycle,” says Park. “Because of the disastrous side effects, I’ve had women say they feel ‘trapped’ in their gels!”
Scary. But you don’t have to take the nail damage lying down. When its time to remove the gels, ask your technician to wrap nails in acetone-soaked cotton, and then cover with foil—this method requires less soaking time. If you’re already carting around ten tiny gel mani victims, nurse nails back to health by massaging cuticles with a hydrating oil (try Essie Apricot Cuticle Oil, $8), and applying a therapy base coat with vitamin E (like Sally Hansen Nail Growth Miracle, $6) to help fill ridges and protect brittle nails.
Our advice? Take a break from traditional gel manicures altogether. Instead, spring for one of the new polish options that offer comparable glossy, long-lasting results, like Julep Freedom Polymer Top Coat. Launching in December (julep.com), this polish provides similar gel-like shine and durability, but it’s cured through natural light. Excellent, plus it can be removed using acetone-free nail polish remover. Hark!
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