Gel Manicures: Major Do or Serious Don’t?

As someone whose fashion and beauty mantra tends to be quality over quantity, I have a hard time spending money on beauty treatments that produce fairly temporary results. There are a couple exceptions – I consider pedicures, and now the occasional facial, to be worthwhile luxuries. Manicures, however, have never acquired a spot on my list. It’s not that I don’t like having my fingernails buffed and professionally polished – quite the opposite, actually – but the staying power of almost every so-called “longwear” polish has continued to disappoint me. No matter what the bottle says, three days after my lovely manicure my nails are predictably and regrettably chipped. Rather than shell out, at minimum, ten bucks a week for the same lackluster results, I have fallen back on the DIY approach and taken it upon myself to become a nail polish connoisseur. Two years later, I’m just as good as the pros. Well, almost.

There are parts of a manicure that I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss. For example, my cuticles aren’t exactly in tiptop shape. While I have mastered the art of oil application, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the actual cuticle removal. Having said this, when my cousin’s wedding rolled around last month, I knew I had to bite the ten-dollar bullet and schedule an appointment ASAP.

As my manicurist was busy filing my neglected nails into oblivion, I couldn’t help but notice the wall of gel polishes to my left. I had heard of gel manicures before – in addition to recent buzz, I remember a former coworker at Lucky Magazine showing off her impressive mani while raving about the long-term results. Doing some fast math, I realized that there were still four full days between now and the wedding. That meant four full days of potential nail nicks, chips and scuffs. The bottom line: I had to upgrade.

After consulting with my manicurist, I was told that gel was their most popular treatment and I would not be disappointed. The minimalist in me tried not to be dissuaded by her ombre glitter gel mani, and upon hearing the words “last up to two weeks,” I picked a color faster than you can spit out your favorite ESSIE shade. The process was a painless one. There are four coats of polish, no more than in a regular manicure, with the top coat being the most important, as it serves as a gel sealant. Between each coat, nails are briefly placed underneath a UV lamp, after which they immediately feel dry to the touch. The lack of drying time is undoubtedly one of the top benefits to a gel manicure. After leaving the salon you are free to garden, wash your car, or complete any other activity restricted by your usual manicure.

However, as you may already know, there has been a lot of talk about whether or not the pros of gel manicures outweigh the potential cons. We’ve compiled a list of important factors to consider before booking your appointment.

1.  Exposure to ultraviolet rays

As mentioned before, each coat of gel polish requires a short stint underneath a UV lamp. While such a small amount of time may seem inconsequential, continued by-weekly exposure could cause additional risk for skin cancer. In order to prevent this, apply SPF 30 liberally to both hands before placing them underneath the lamp. Still unsure? It was recently announced that Dashing Diva is launching new product ColorFX this July. ColorFX consists of a single sticker that is first glued to the nail, and then coated with a clear polish. The biggest perk is that ColorFX dries underneath LED lighting rather than a UV lamp. So, are LED lights just as effective?  According to nail professional Emily Ryan, the answer is: absolutely. “LED lights are a great option! They can cut cure time in half, with the same quality lasting results.” Most importantly, she says, LED lights do not pose the potential risks associated with UV lamps.

2. Excessive use of acetone
Current gel manicures require a significant soak in acetone in order to be removed. Acetone is an extremely drying chemical that can cause nails to become brittle and weak. Dashing Diva’s upcoming ColorFX will not require acetone for removal, instead using a simple cuticle oil to jumpstart peeling.

3.  Possible harmful ingredients
Some nail polishes may include the chemical butylated hydroxyanisol (BHA), which is considered to be a cancer-causing agent. Ryan recommends using a nail professional that you trust, and making sure they are informed about the products that they use. 

4.  Professional application/removal recommended
Although it is possible to apply and remove your own gel manicure, it is much more difficult than a normal polish application. Keep in mind that professional gel manicures will also be a bit more costly. Because the gel can only be dried underneath the UV lamp, the purchase of a personal lamp is required, which can cost around 50 dollars. As someone who gets bored with nail colors easily, I found this to be slightly inconvenient.

The result of this treatment pretty much speaks for itself. Not only did I arrive at the wedding with flawless fingernails, but my perfectly manicured hands were also selected for an up-close photo holding a slice of wedding cake. Although my hand-modeling career hasn’t taken off as quickly as expected, I have since gone back for my second gel manicure, causing me t0 wonder if future advancements in gel polish will soon make regular nail polish obsolete.

But don’t shelve your favorite shades just yet – Ryan says that despite its recent spike in popularity, gel polish still isn’t for everyone. “Over the past several years I have seen the gel polish industry expand exponentially. I recently attended an international beauty show and was surprised that almost all of the professional nail companies have their own version of gel polish.” Regardless, she says, removal is still difficult and expensive for non-professionals, making regular polish the best option for at-home use.

Due to exposure to both UV rays and acetone, it’s important to give your nails some breathing room. For day-to-day life, your old-standby mani will probably do just fine. However, for special occasions, the convenience and ultimately stunning results of gel polish are undeniable. “The most important thing is to make sure you have your gel polish applied by a licensed nail technician who uses a high quality product,” says Ryan, so don’t be afraid to treat yourself every once in a while.


Emily Ryan is a professional nail technician based out of New York City. In the past she has owned her own nail salon, catered to celebrity clientele, and  participated in New York Fashion Week. 
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