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Gel Nail Polish 101: Everything You Need to Know About Gel Manicures

There’s a reason why gel nail polish has become a modern beauty mainstay: it's virtually indestructible, impossibly glossy, and offered at nearly every nail salon. However, the most enticing aspect of a gel mani? Zero risk in chipping your polish the minute you dig through your handbag to check your phone — not to mention, for several weeks to come.

"Gel polishes are comprised of stronger ingredients that grasp the nail tighter than traditional lacquers and are strong enough to stand up to daily wear and tear without chipping,” explains Essie Global Lead Educator Rita Remark. A few differences between the formula and your regular lacquer? "Gel polishes are more flexible, so they stand up to chips; gels are cured under a UV or LED lamp and polishes cure in oxygen. Gels have to be removed by soaking in acetone for at least ten minutes, while polishes can be easily wiped away with nail polish remover.”

We spoke with celebrity manicurist Jenna Hipp (who counts Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez among her clients) and Dr. Chris Adigun, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based dermatologist who specializes in nail health, to learn how to get gel manis the safe way.

Ahead, discover 11 tips for making your gel manicure last and keeping your natural nails healthy, plus a roundup of our favorite gel nail polishes.

1. Let your natural nail breathe in between gel manicures.

Whether or not you opt for a gel or traditional polish formula, the truth is that regular manis of any kind can weaken your natural 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 isn't to deter salon regulars, nor those who live for an at-home manicure. 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 in certain, severe cases, tumors. The thick, armor-like coating of polish also blocks nails from being able to transfer oxygen, explains Jenna.

Dr. Adigun encourages patients to avoid back-to-back gel appointments to prevent lasting damage. "I always tell my patients to go on a gel 'honeymoon,'" says Dr. Adigun. "This break will allow their nails to rehydrate and repair."

2. Try not to pick at peeling gel polish.

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.

"When applied and removed correctly, gels are completely safe to wear on an ongoing basis,” adds Rita. "Gels can certainly weaken the nails if they are peeled or pried off the nail, which can strip layers of the natural nail, or if the nail if over buffed prior to gel application."

3. The ingredients in the gel polish matter.

"More than just nail health, I opt for total body health,” says Jenna, who warns against the “toxic trio” carcinogens that are present in many polishes: Formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). "After clinical testing, in high doses, these ingredients were found to cause inflammation along with many other adverse side effects like disturbing liver and thyroid function for example,” Rita explains. Luckily, most all professional-grade nail polishes manufactured today do not contain these “nasties.” Jenna's own brand of lacquers, along with Jinsoon's, RGB's, Zoya's, and Sally Hansen's come formulated without those common culprits.

4. Try to limit your exposure to the UV lamp.

A recent study from the American Academy of Dermatology revealed that gel manicures may not be a safe option for people who are highly sensitive to UV light. “The UV dose that you receive during a gel manicure is brief, but it’s intense,” Dr. Adigun said in the study. “Over time, this intense exposure can add up to cause skin damage.”

"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 to make sure you use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, meaning that it protects against UVA/UVB rays. 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 nail technician would need to wait the recommended 20 minutes prior to applying the gel."

Instead, Dr. Adigun recommends bringing along your own pair of YouVeeShield gloves to protect your hands against UVA radiation (which also causes signs of premature aging like dark spots and wrinkles). "It is the most protective material [because it] protects the entire digits and wrist," Dr. Adigun says.

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5. Think of gel polish as liquid acrylics.

Ever wonder exactly how gel manicures stay so perfect for so long? "The chemical compositions for gel polish and regular nail polish vary with each brand, but the major difference is that gel polish will only dry under direct UV or LED light contact, while regular nail polish can air dry," explains celebrity nail artist Yoko Sakakura. "Gel polish applications cure under a lamp, creating a hardened layer of polish that makes it more durable and longer-lasting. The removal process for gel polish is more complex as well, requiring the nail to be soaked in acetone to properly dissolve the formula off of the nail." So not only will they last longer, but they'll look harder and shinier while you've got 'em, too.

6. Hot baths or showers can cause gel polish to lift.

"A gel manicure’s worst enemy is hot water,” says Rita, hence why soaking them is the most effective way to get them off. "Long baths, showers, or time spent in a hot tub can cause lifting, so try your best to avoid these or keep them to a minimum and always wear rubber gloves when you do the dishes!” Duly noted.

7. The soaking-off process can be harmful.

While your manicure may stay firmly in place until you're ready to take it off, the removal process 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. Additionally, once the foils come off, manicurists may scrape the nail plate with a file, which can result in 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.

8. Give your skin 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 or an overnight mask like Nails Inc.'s Overnight Detox Nail Mask post-removal in order to rehydrate and repair the surrounding skin, cuticle, and nails," Dr. Adigun says.

10. Hydrate your nails.

You know the importance of drinking plenty of H2O for your health – and the same rules apply when it comes to nail health. 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.

11. Consider using nail wraps for protection.

Want the look of gels minus the damage — and dry time? Jenna recommends using painted nail strips like NCLA's topped with a clear gel coat, like Essie's Gel Couture Top Coat. "This way, the gel never touches the actual nail plate, and it seals in the wrap for up to two weeks," she says.

12. ...or "gel-like" polishes to use at home.

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.

Do you want your nail looks beautiful? We've got you covered! Check out our CND Shellac Collection and LED Gel Dryer. ➡️ BUY NOW:

Articcle written by Emily Gaynor & Zoë Weiner for Teen Vogue

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