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Are Gel Manicures Safe?


Gel manicures - Dr. Axe

It’s happened to most women at one point or another. After plunking down hard-earned cash for a manicure, you walk out of the nail salon and promptly smudge a nail or have it chip in just a day or two.

These days, however, there’s a way to make sure those manis last. Nail salons across the country are offering an alternative: gel and shellac manicures. These trendy treatments are ready quickly, eliminating long drying times, a blessing when you’re strapped for time, eliminating the risk of smudged and chipped nails. They also offer a super shiny finish that’s hard to replicate at home, but the real benefit to gel manicures (and pedicures) is how long they last. A gel manicure lasts an average of two weeks, while some shellac ones can keep looking good for almost four weeks.

If you love the look of polished, fresh-out-of-the-salon nails, getting this beauty treatment done seems like a no-brainer. But are gel manicures, which are set by UV rays, safe? Let’s tap into this trend.

How Do Gel Manicures Work?

With normal manicures, the nail technician applies a base coat, a double coat of polish and finishes off your fingers with a clear top coat designed to protect the color. Unfortunately, normal polishes don’t last too long because the polish starts wearing off. Combine the natural “wear and tear” of polish with how often our nails are exposed to activities that beg for polish to come off – think washing dishes, opening things and oh, just about everything – and you’re lucky if you get a few days out of that salon appointment.

Gel manicures work differently. First, a nail tech applies a dehydrator on the nail followed by a coat of primer gel and about three coats of colored gel, the polish you’ve chosen. Each coat of gel is set with a stint of one to three minutes under a UV lamp. Shellac, a type of gel manicure, works similarly, but there are more “coating” steps, about six to seven total.

The time spent under the UV light is what makes the gel manicure so durable. It “sets” the polish, letting it harden to keep it looking good. Unfortunately, it can come at a price – literally and figuratively, since gel manicures can be double or even triple the price of a normal salon manicure (and, of course, much pricier than a DIY session).

While the lamps that are used in a gel manicure session aren’t as strong as those in, say, a tanning bed, they aren’t harmless. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, nail salon lamps produce mostly UVA rays, which have been linked to skin cancer and premature aging.

While the lamp presents only a moderate UV risk amount at a time, just eight to 14 visits over two years can cause enough cumulative damage to present a serious skin cancer risk. (1) Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., with more than 67,000 people diagnosed in 2012. That means if you enjoy a gel manicure once a month, in a year you’ve paid to increase your risk of this cancer.

If you have a family history of skin cancer, using a UV lamp is a recipe for disaster. And if you are taking oral photosensitizing medications, which increase sensitivity to light, the UV rays can be extra harmful to your actual nail, increasing the chances that it’ll detach from the nail bed – ouch!

And while the risks of skin cancer might be slim, the concentrated exposure to UV rays on your hands can age hands prematurely, leading to wrinkles and age spots. Yikes.

The UV lamps aren’t the only risk factor in getting gel manicures. The long-lasting polish is great for covering up your nails, but that means it can be weeks before you notice anything has gone awry under the shiny façade. It’s easy to hide a nail infection from improperly sterilized nail tools if you haven’t seen the nail in some time.

Additionally, as a gel manicure grows out, it’s hard to avoid picking at the nails, as the gap between the cuticle and the gelled nail grows. As the polish starts lifting, it makes it easy for water to get trapped beneath the gel polish, becoming a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus growth.

The gel manicure growing out process also makes it tempting – and oddly satisfying – to remove the gel polish, which starts to look and feel like a fake nail. The only problem is that, as you remove the gel polish, you’re almost certainly pulling layers of your real nail along with it. This can lead to nail brittleness and skin irritation, which can take months for your natural nails to bounce back from. (2)

And if all that isn’t enough, getting rid of gel manicures can cause damage, too. That’s because the process involves soaking hands in acetone for about 20 minutes. Acetone dries out nails and prolonged exposure can leave them dehydrated and brittle as well.

How to Get Great Nails Naturally

Does this mean that long-lasting manicures are a thing of the past?

While it seems like the occasional gel manicure isn’t harmful, it’s important to be aware of the risks before getting one and take steps to protect yourself. Use sunscreen on your hands during the UV lamp process to protect them from harmful rays during the hardening process.

You should also apply a super-moisturizing product around the cuticles, like jojoba oil, is also critical to keep nails from drying out and becoming brittle. And no picking at the nails while they grow out!

Personally, I believe gel manicures should come very few and far between, if at all. Your nails need time to rehydrate and repair and an added risk of skin cancer – no matter how minor – is pretty scary.

Instead, invest the money you’d spend on a salon manicure and purchase a few at-home manicure tools. You’d be shocked at what great results you can do on your own – and how much money you’ll save!

Additionally, even if you’re sticking with DIY nail treatments, give your nails a few days off every now and then. They need time to “breathe” and repair themselves from the side effect of nail polish and removers. It’s also a good idea to make sure your nails are still looking strong and healthy, which you can’t do if the nail is always covered in polish. Think of these polish-free days as your nails taking a vacation!

Gel manicures certainly sound good. Unfortunately, when you polish the surface, they do more harm than good. And some things – like your health! – are more important than chip-free polish.

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  1. Joan on

    Melanie, I would also like the answer to your question. My nail tech changed over from a UV to an LED over a year ago. I was told it was safer and it is quicker.

  2. Doug Schoon on

    Hi, I am an internationally known scientific researcher in the cosmetic industry and a world-leading expert on nails and nail salon products. I’m very concerned about misinformation in the article, “Are Gel Manicures Safe”. Because this article is filled with some seriously incorrect information that is contrary to the known science concerning this matter, I would like to speak to the Doctor and provide the facts. If he is interested in fact-based information about these nail products, please have him contact me.

  3. Melanie on

    This is a great read but I’m curious about using the LED nail lamps. Are they a better option than the UV lamp?

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