Are Gel Manicures Safe?

These popular manis last longer, but can they damage your skin and nails? Find out.

Medically Reviewed by Mohiba Tareen, MD on September 23, 2014
3 min read

With sales of nail polish nearing $800 million a year in the United States, there's a sea of decorated digits out there. But spending your cash on polish that chips or flakes in a couple of days can be a waste of time and money. Now, women have the option of gel polishes that offer 2 to 4 weeks of staying power.

"Gel polishes last longer and resist chipping," says cosmetic chemist Ni'kita Wilson, CEO and co-owner of Catalyst Cosmetic Development in Union, N.J. A long chain of molecules in the gel polishes gives them strength by forming a durable yet flexible coat upon hardening. The polish sets with exposure to ultraviolet light.

The downside with gel manicures stems from the crucial UV-curing step. A recent study found that the cumulative damage from the light frequencies the nail lamps emit can cause DNA damage to the skin that can result in premature aging and possibly cancer.

"To be honest, there's not a simple answer about the danger of the UV rays in gel nail lamps," says Chris Adigun, MD. She's a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. 

"But I wouldn't spend time worrying about the UV exposure from these lamps," she says. "The risk of malignant cancer due to nail lamp exposure is extremely low." 

Even so, Adigun suggests you apply sunscreen to the tops of your hands, or buy sun-protective gloves with the fingers cut off.

Nail damage is another downside, she says. "One study found significant thinning of people's nail plates after gel polish application." The cause isn't clear, but it could be a result of the polish remover.

The same issues apply with do-it-yourself gel manicure kits. "Home versions aren't going to be as powerful as the salon lights," Wilson says, so you'll likely have to spend more time under the lamps.

No matter where you get gelled, give your nails a week or two to recover. Between polishes, moisturize with a lotion such as Aquaphor to rehydrate your nails, Adigun says.

Julie Kandalec, creative director of Paintbox nail studio in New York, offers pointers on painlessly removing gel polish:

  • Moisturize your nails. Apply cuticle oil every day while you're wearing gel polish. The oil will help keep your nails flexible and prevent the nail from peeling away when the polish is removed.
  • File first. Rough up the top of the polish with a fine-grit nail file to allow the polish remover to get in thoroughly.
  • Use foil. Soak a cotton ball in polish remover and place it on your nail. Wrap the finger in a strip of foil, which will keep the remover from evaporating and help speed up removal.
  • Be patient. Wait 10 to 15 minutes, and then use an orange stick -- no metal implements or you risk damaging the nail bed -- to slide off the polish.

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