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My Gel Manicure Horror Story Made Me Wonder: Is This Even Safe?

My Gel Manicure Horror Story Made Me Wonder: Is This Even Safe?

Who doesn’t love a gel manicure? Regular nail polish just can’t match the long-lasting wear and shine of gel polish. But have you ever taken a break from your gel manicures and realized your nails are brittle and damaged? Maybe you start to wonder: “How safe are these gel manicures?”

Well, I have my own gel manicure horror story to share.

Rewind to 2020. COVID-19 is starting to pop up in my area, New York City. I’m working at a high school and students are asking excitedly if schools will close down, none of us knowing the reality. Later, I go to get a gel manicure, and it looks great. My nail tech apologizes for occasionally being on the phone ― her Instacart shopper couldn’t find any bottled water.

Cue the shutdown a few days later. Being gel polish, my manicure continued to look great for well over two weeks. But then it was removal time. I soaked and soaked, but eventually switched to filing the gel down. Imagine the horror as my nail bed started bleeding because I’d been trying to file off some gel in one spot for too long.

That’s all to say that over two years later, I still have not been brave enough to get another gel manicure. I know countless people who talk about their nails being damaged from gel polish, and have discussed with friends the safety of ultraviolet lights. So for myself, and all of you, I went to the experts to find out: How safe are gel manicures, really?

Can the gel lamp cause skin cancer?

“This has been the source of some controversy,” said Dr. Erum Ilyas, a dermatologist based out of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. “Interestingly, however, the type of UV light used for gel manicures tends to be UVA light. UVA has been linked to premature aging of the skin, but not necessarily directly to the development of skin cancers. UVB is linked to skin cancer development.”

In 2020, a systematic literature review determined there was little to no risk of skin cancer from ultraviolet gel lights. However, Dr. Alexis Young, a dermatologist with Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, warned: “Since gel manicures only gained popularity within the past 10 years, it’s too early to determine if the rates of skin cancers developing on the hands will be higher.”

Victoria Popova / EyeEm via Getty Images

If you’re really worried about the ultraviolet lamp at salons, there are precautions you can take.

Ilyas and Young both explained there are ways to reduce the risk of premature aging and potential skin cancer from the lamp. Young suggests: “Wear gloves with the fingertips cut off, inquire if the salon uses LED light instead of ultraviolet light, and rub sunscreen onto the hands prior to placing hands under the light.” Ilyas said that draping a towel over your hands when they’re under the light can also act as a barrier.

How do I know if a salon is using safe tools and techniques?

As any regular client knows, not all salons are created equal. How can you spot a place that cuts corners versus a reputable salon that will keep your nails healthy and strong?

We asked Syreeta Aaron, an Alabama-based nail expert and LeChat nail educator, what to look out for at your next salon visit. She advised: “If a technician files the gel polish completely off your nails, this is a way that they’re trying to cut time away from soaking, and by doing so, they are also taking extra layers off of the nail plate that do not need to be taken away.”

Rachel Apfel Glass, the founder of Glosslab nail salons, had another recommendation. “At Glosslab, we are totally water-free in all our services, as water is a breeding ground for germs and can cause damage to nails as well. I recommend always asking for a water-free service wherever you go, and they should accommodate.”

When is it time to take a break from gel manicures?

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For people who get gel manicures frequently, Apfel Glass recommends taking breaks for your nails to stay healthy. Aaron had similar advice: “I suggest a client take a break from gel polish if they once had strong nails and from the use of gel polish their nails are beginning to weaken.”

If you’re noticing signs of nail damage, Apfel Glass offered suggestions to improve nail health. “I recommend using coconut oil to moisturize the nail bed. Shorter nails are also the healthiest, so opt for a clean, short cut for your next visit!”

Aaron recommended another product that improves damaged nails: IBX nail repair treatment, which you can buy for $24.95 at the Nail Hub.

Armed with this information, we can all feel positive about our next salon visit for a gel manicure.




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