Experts Break Down All The Misconceptions (And Truths) Surrounding Gel Manicures

A close-up shot of a model with her hand on her chin, wearing red gel manicure

From the start of summer through Labor Day, it’s all about our nails. Whenever we enter the nail salon, we’re determined to get out of our predictable rut and get a gel manicure or pedicure that’s worthy of the ‘gram. But, then we remember that our sister’s friend’s mom once said gel nails are bad, and we end up with our regular old manicure that chips in a day or two. So, we finally decided it was time to chat with our favorite industry experts to set the record straight on all things gels. Here’s their ultimate guide to gel nails.


We Asked: Do Gel Nails Actually Last Longer Than A Regular Manicure?

Answer: Yes. For the most part.

A gel manicure goes through the motions of a regular service—cutting the nails, soaking the hands, trimming the cuticles, a thorough hand-cleaning, etc.—but it changes when you get to the polish. "Gel polish goes on like traditional formulas but is hardened or cured in a UV light, which then produces a two-week shine and wear, unlike standard nail treatments," informs Jan Arnold, Co-founder and Creative Director, CND. So, while most regular manicures that rely on top coats to keep it from fading and chipping, gel nails rely on said UV light which makes for a more durable manicure that can withstand the elements (even acetone), while the same cannot be said about run-of-the-mill nail polish, which can start to fade, dull and chip in as quickly as a few days (there are, of course, exceptions to this).

We Asked: Can You Get A Gel Nail Manicure Without A UV Lamp?

Answer: No.

UV light is used because "the gels have a specific chemical that reacts to the specific wavelengths from the UV lamps. At the end of that chemical reaction, the gel hardens, and the nails have that chip-free, glossy look," says Dr. John Paul Tutela, NJ + NYC celebrity plastic surgeon.

What about those at-home gel nail polishes that I see everywhere, you ask? Well, most come with at-home UV lamps to cure the nails and, as for the no-light formulas, we can speak from personal experience that they do not always stack up to a professionally polished and cured service in that fading and chipping can commonly occur. (More on that below.)

We Asked: Will At-Home Gel Polishes And Kits Deliver Salon-Equivalent Results?

Answer: Nope!

At-home gel polish services are not as effective as their salon counterparts because the systems designed to be long-lasting are professional-grade only. "Most at-home systems use either an LED or UV lamp," shares Dr. Tutela. But, no matter which type of lamp is used, the wattage is still below a professional treatment, so the nails end up being under-cured, which "leads to lifting, peeling and dulling of the shine,” states Jan.

A salon visit is the only way to ensure an authentic gel treatment. As Jan notes, “a skilled nail professional also has the precise methods for service longevity, which includes a proper manicure and nail prep, application procedure, calibrated cure and correct removal protocols to ensure optimal results."


We Asked: Do Gel Nail Polishes EVER Chip?

Answer: Sometimes, when done incorrectly.

To get the most bang for your buck, Jan notes that you must make sure, "the natural nails are clean and dry before the gel polish goes on," this is the ideal surface for a smooth application and prolonged durability. Also, tell the technician that you want thin layers, which "will ensure complete hardening" and protect against chips and dents. If the layers are too thick, you risk them not drying completely and being more susceptible to ruin.

We Asked: Can The UV Lamps Used For Gel Manicures Be Damaging To Our Skin?

Answer: Possibly.

The most notorious criticism that gel manicures face is that the UV light used to set the polish can speed up the aging process of the hands and even cause skin cancer. Dr. Tutela explains, "the UV light exposure won't cause a typical sunburn, but it does cause advances aging and can increase the likelihood of skin cancer." He recommends applying a broad-spectrum sunblock on your hands at least 30 minutes prior to your treatment.

We Asked: Can Gel Nail Polish Removal Damage Your Natural Nail? Answer: Yes, (again) when done incorrectly. Thanks to its chemical resistance, gels can’t be easily wiped away with acetone. Instead, they need to be properly soaked to loosen the hardened gel from the nail. Jan's preferred method involves, placing a cotton pad over the nail and tightly wrapping the nail and fingertip in the foil. Then, she waits one minute and gently massages the nail to remove the polish. This method ensures the least amount of damage to the nail. However, Dr. Tutela warns, "people with naturally weaker nails need to be especially careful about the frequency of gel services as the removal process can further deteriorate the state of the nails."