There's nothing worse than leaving the nail salon only to put a dent in your freshly painted pointers the minute you dig through your handbag to check your phone. That was one of the reasons gel manicures became an instant beauty phenomenon: They're quick, they're practically bulletproof, and the shiny, glossy color won't budge for at least two weeks.
A lot of naysayers insisted that this quick polish fix seemed too good to be true. And even though we were devout followers at first, it's clear that they had some valid points. We spoke with celebrity manicurist Jenna Hipp (Lea Michele, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez all are fans!) and Dr. Chris Adigun, a Chapel Hill-based dermatologist who specializes in nail health, to learn how to make our gels safer and know when to step away from the light.
Manicures can weaken your nails.
Well, for one thing, your routine trip to the nail salon to get freshly coated color — gel or not — is weakening your nails. "The manicure process can lead to dehydration and thinning of the nail plate," says Dr. Adigun. "I've seen my clients come in with peeling, thin, breaking, discolored nails and even painful nail beds," explains Jenna.
But that fact is not likely to deter salon regulars, or even at-home manicurists, who are never seen without a color adoring their fingers. Unfortunately, according to Dr. Adigun, by not looking at your natural nail at least every two weeks you won't be able to properly assess its condition, plus you might even be missing infections and (more scarily) tumors. The thick, armor-like coating of polish also blocks nails from being able to transfer oxygen, explains Jenna.
Picking at the gel manicure is a bad idea.
One thing that's pretty common among gel devotees is the picking process. When the color begins to lift, you may be tempted to remove it, almost like you would a scab. "As peeling and lifting begin, water can seep into the nail," says Jenna. "This can harbor bacteria and possibly cause fungus. Once the peeling phase starts, it's hard not to pick at your polish. If you rip it off, you're probably taking some layers of your nail off with it. This kind of damage can take over six months to repair." Dr. Adigun adds: "In one study, nail plate thickness was measured both before and after just one gel manicure and thinning was observed." It's not clear exactly which component caused the thinning, but one or more points in the gel process are to blame.
Look out for the "toxic trio" in gel manicure formulas.
"More than just nail health, I opt for total body health. Many of us know about the 'Toxic Trio,' or carcinogens in nail polish which can also sometimes be found in a gel formula," says Jenna. Her own brand of lacquers, along with Jin Soon's, RGB's, Zoya's, and Sally Hansen's come formulated without those common culprits.
Try to limit your exposure to the gel manicure light.
Although the jury is still out on whether or not UV light radiation from gel manicures can cause cancer, it's best to stay away as much as you can. While some experts say that gel manicure UV lights raise the risk of cancer, "others point out the risk is slim," explains Jenna. "An additional concern is the rise in popularity of LED nail lamps," Dr. Adigun notes of her own research on the safety of gel manicures. LED lamps have become popular as much for their faster curing times as the belief that they're safer than UV lamps, but Dr. Adigun insists this is not the case. "Although many people mistakenly believe these lamps do not use UVA [rays] to cure, they in fact use higher intensities of UVA wavelengths in order to achieve the shorter curing times. This higher intensity of UVA irradiance means that it requires less time for these lamps to potentially harm the skin," she explains.
When you still need your gel fix, Dr. Adigun says you'll need more than just a simple sunscreen. "Sunscreens are not typically great at protecting against UVA rays," she tells us. Plus, the UVA light from the nail lamps is stronger than the usual exposure you get from the sun. "Applying sunscreen during a manicure is [also] logistically difficult," she adds. "By the time the hand-care portion of the manicure is finished, prior to the application of the gels, sunscreen would need to be applied, and then the consumer and the manicurist would need to wait the recommended 20 minutes prior to applying the gel." Yeah, we're probably not going to take the time to do that.
Instead, Dr. Adigun recommends bringing along your own pair of YouVeeShield gloves to protect your hands against UVA radiation (which also cause signs of premature aging like dark spots and wrinkles). "It is the most protective material [because it] protects the entire digits and wrist, is truly one-size-fits-all, and is economical," Dr. Adigun says.
Gel manicure UV lamps are not all alike.
Dr. Adigun notes that UV lamps are not regulated, so each one might affect you differently. "The strength of the bulb varies from one manufacturer to the next, which makes it very difficult to assess the risk level at different salons," she says. You might be telling yourself that the amount of exposure is so short and infrequent, but your visits to the manicurist add up.
The soaking-off process is harmful.
While your manicure may stay firmly in place until you're ready to take it off, the removal can be extremely harsh. According to Jenna and Dr. Adigun, soaking your nails in acetone wrapped in foil is what leaves them dried out and brittle post-gel mani. Not to mention, once the foils come off, manicurists scrape the nail plate which often requires extra buffing, meaning more nail trauma! Making sure that your manicurist correctly applies and cures your gel polish in the first place can help to lessen this damage. "Properly cured gels remove easily with the acetone soak, whereas improperly cured gels require tools to manually remove them," Dr. Adigun explains.
Give your nails (and fingers!) some TLC after the gel manicure is removed.
"It's very important that the surrounding skin and cuticle, as well as the nail plate itself, be rehydrated with a thick emollient such as Aquaphor after the soak in order to rehydrate and repair the skin, cuticle, and nails," Dr. Adigun says.
Don't get gel manicures back-to-back.
Whatever you do, don't do back-to-back gel appointments! "I always tell my patients to go on a gel honeymoon," says Dr. Adigun. "This break will allow their nails to rehydrate and repair."
Also, hydrate your nails as much as possible in between salon visits. Dermelect Makeover Ridge Filler acts as a base coat and quenches shriveled nail beds, while the Nails Inc. Back To Life Recover Treatment can be used as a base coat or sheer nude polish that camouflages damage while hydrating nails with vitamin C and coconut, apricot, and avocado oils.
Consider a wrap...
Jenna loves a combination of fun NCLA nail strips topped with a clear gel coat, like Dior's. "This way, the gel never touches the actual nail plate, and it seals in the wrap for up to two weeks," she says.
...or "gel-like" polishes.
There's also a series of "gel-like" polishes available on the market, which have long-wear properties that, generally speaking, will last a full week. While nearly every brand has launched their own take on the gel finish, Nails Inc.'s gel collection has earned the brand a considerable amount of notoriety, and Covergirl's XL Nail Gel offers a high-shine finish at a drugstore price.
Rounding out the at-home game is Sally Hansen, whose Miracle Gel polish has over 70 shades to choose from.. The part-gel, part-lacquer product lasts for two weeks (seriously) sans the UV light. Just paint on the nail color and seal with the special topcoat — natural light bonds the two layers together and strengthens over time. The best part? No acetone baths at the end. Simply remove with regular nail polish remover. The future of the fool-proof manicure is here!
This story originally appeared on Teen Vogue.
More from Teen Vogue: