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Are Gel Nails Bad For You? Plus, How To Remove Them Safely

Hannah Frye
Author:
April 03, 2023
Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
By Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor

Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more.

April 03, 2023
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There's no right or wrong way to experiment with your nails. You should always put your passions, interests, and preferences before all else. However, some habits can be particularly damaging over time, so it's important to know what you're getting into. 

Today's topic: gel nails. While this ultra-long-lasting manicure may be great for wearability, your nails may beg to differ. To come, nail experts explain how gel polish affects your nails, how to remove it properly, and what to do if you're left with paper-thin tips. 

Why gel nails can be bad for your health

To keep it simple: Yes, your nails are better off on their own than with gel, but you probably already knew that. The reason this gel can be so damaging is related not entirely to the product itself but also the process. Here's what you should know: 

1.

The application and removal process is harsh on the nail.

"Most of the damage from soak-off gels is due to the removal process," board-certified dermatologist and nail expert Dana Stern, M.D., tells mbg. This includes sanding the nail down before application and the acetone soak for removal. 

"A study out of Miami School of Medicine used ultrasound to demonstrate that gel manicures cause nail thinning1," Stern notes. While it is unclear whether the polish or removal process was at fault, Stern notes that most experts align with the latter theory. 

Nail expert and owner of Brooklyn-based nail salon Lunula Tina Wang agrees: "Proper gel removal is often what makes the difference between maintaining or damaging nails," she notes. 

2.

It dries out the nail. 

"You may not know it, but nails lose moisture faster than the rest of the skin around it," Wang says. "And just like hair after too many treatments, nails can also become dry and brittle."

The reason gel nails cause dryness is due to a couple of different culprits, she says, including forcefully scraping off product during removal (instead of allowing it to release first), aggressive filing after removal, and picking and peeling off the gel polish.

3.

UV lights cause DNA damage. 

Recent research found that radiation emitted by UV-nail polish dryers can alter and damage DNA2—however, it's not clear if this is associated with skin cancers or other health risks. "At this point in time, it is difficult to quantify the risks of UVA exposure during repeated gel manicure sessions," Stern says. There's much variability with respect to types of lamps, exposure times, positioning of skin, skin types, etc. 

"We do know that repeated exposure to UVA from sunlight or tanning machines is mutagenic and can cause skin cancer, the question remains as to how much of a risk typical gel manicures pose2," she adds—which means we need more studies to confirm the risk. 

But, we do know that UVA rays contribute to photoaging. "UVA rays penetrate the skin to a deeper depth than UVB rays and as a result are responsible for many of the changes in the skin known as photoaging," she says. This includes thinning and wrinkling of the skin, visible blood vessels, uneven skin tone, skin laxity, volume loss, hyperpigmentation (aka dark spots), and hypopigmentation (aka light spots). 

So if you must get a gel manicure, Stern recommends applying SPF 30 to your hands or wearing fingerless gloves before popping them under the light. 

4.

It dries out the cuticle.

"Long acetone soaks can also cause dehydration of the cuticle," Stern notes. "Dry cuticles can retract, lift and separate, and lead to a compromise to the nail's natural protective barrier," she says. 

Of course you can replenish hydration via hand cream and cuticle oil after your manicure, but repeated exposure to potent acetone might take a toll over time regardless. 

5.

It can be left on too long. 

When you think of the benefits of gel nails, you probably come across the fact that they last much longer than typical polish in most cases. However, that might not be a great thing for your nail health. 

"You should not leave a gel manicure on for longer than two to three weeks, even if it still looks intact," Wang says. "The extra weight can start pulling on your nail, causing tears in the base of your nails," she adds. 

6.

It can cause keratin granulation. 

"Additionally when gels are removed, superficial layers of nail cells can be inadvertently removed along with the gel, and this can result in the formation of a keratin granulation," Stern says. 

"Keratin granulations appear as white patches in the nail and can also occur when polish is left on too long and then removed," she adds. So if you've seen white spots on your nails, it may be due to frequent gel manicures. 

How to remove gel nails at home

If all of that has you convinced you should remove your gel ASAP, don't move too quickly. The experts agree it's always best practice to get your gel removed by a professional.

However, you can do it at home if you don't have access to a nail tech—here's how: 

  1. Grab a gritty file: Using a 100-grit nail file, gently file the gel to remove the top layer of polish. This shouldn't hit your actual nail but rather stop right before. Make sure your movements are slow and precise so you're not pulling the nail back and forth.
  2. Dip a cotton ball in acetone: "Then apply a cotton ball soaked in remover to the nails, which should soften the gel," Wang says. Try to place the cotton ball on the nail in a way that ensures the damp part is on the nail and the dry part is on the cuticle, if possible.  
  3. Secure: "Then secure the cotton in place with foil," she notes. This may be difficult to do on your own if you go for both hands at once, so ask a friend to help you out if need be. 
  4. Wait 10 minutes, then file: "After about 10 minutes, the gel should flake off with the help of a nail file," Wang says. But if it doesn't, don't trip—just wait a few more minutes. Doing this will be better for the health of your nail than ripping the gel off right away. Again, move the file slowly so you don't put too much stress on your vulnerable nail. 
  5. Gently push the remaining gel off the nail if needed: Using a metal cuticle pusher, gently push the rest of the gel off the nail if needed. If it won't budge, try soaking that nail in the remover for another minute. Avoid aggressively scraping the nail. 
  6. Wash your hands: Right after your polish is all gone, wash your hands. You'll want to get the acetone off your skin ASAP. 
  7. Hydrate your nails & cuticles: "Be sure to immediately hydrate the nail upon removal," Wang says. Use a cuticle oil or hydrating nail treatment. Then, lather on some hand cream to seal it all in. 

Healthy nail tips

After you remove your gel polish, your nails will probably be frail for a little while. The good news is that your nails can make a full recovery, but it will take some time and dedicated nail care to nurse them back to health. Consider these steps:

  • Try weekly exfoliating treatments: You'll want to exfoliate the nails periodically to ensure you slough off damaged cells and make room for fresh, healthy tips. Stern created the Nail Renewal System, which is ideal for this purpose: "This once-a-week, on-the-go spill-proof kit is loaded with super-hydrating botanicals and free of artificial fragrance, dyes, parabens, alcohol, and formaldehyde," she says. You can find this kit here, if you're ready to buy.
  • Avoid harsh ingredients: You should let your nails breathe for at least a few weeks after removing your gel. However, if you must use polish right away, go for clean nail polish brands that skip the harsh chemicals that could damage your nails even more. Also, be mindful of what cleaning products you let touch your tips, and wear gloves if you're opting for harsh cleansers. 
  • Take a nail supplement: Collagen supplements are great for supporting skin health, but not many people know this ingredient is A+ for strong nails, too. Along the same lines of skin and hair health, one study found that when patients took collagen daily for 24 weeks, it helped support their nail health3, including better growth rates, reduced breakage, and improved appearance. Here's a list of our top picks if you're in the market
  • Use a natural nail strengthener: While you do want to avoid polish for a while, a nail strengthening gel doesn't count. In fact, this can be a great tool to have on hand for the post-gel woes, so take a look at our top picks here

Gel alternatives

If you love the longevity and durability of gels, there are other options to use. Here, some to check out.

  • Press on nails. Modern press on nails are sleek, stylish, and easy on the nail bed—making them an excellent choice for those who want the aesthetic of gels, without the damage. We like the brands Static Nails and Chillhouse. Another bonus: They’re much easier to switch out more frequently, meaning you can play around with shape, design, and colors more readily! 
  • Long-lasting clean polish. Basic polish is never going to last as long as gels (just the truth!), but there are formulas that have more durability. Olive & June is known for the long-lasting wearability of their clean formulas. Deborah Lippman’s Gel Lab Pro sets are another great at-home, clean alternative to gels. The new technology behind Manicurist’s innovative polishes are plant based, go on and wear like a gel, but then remove with no damage (and very similar to how you remove nail polish!)
  • Dip powders. Dip powders are very similar to acrylic nails, as they have the same base and can be equally harsh on the nail plate. However, they don’t require UV light to harden, making them safer in that regard. If you don’t mind the physical wear of gels, and are only concerned about UV exposure, then dip powders may be a good option for you.

FAQ

What is so bad about gel nails?

"Most of the damage from soak-off gels is due to the removal process," board-certified dermatologist and nail expert Dana Stern, M.D., tells mbg. This includes sanding the nail down before application and the acetone soak for removal. However, the UV light used during the application and weight of the gel can take a toll on your nails as well.

Is UV light for gel nails bad for you?

Recent research found that radiation emitted by UV nail polish dryers can alter and damage DNA—however, it's not clear if this is associated with skin cancers or other health risks. "At this point in time, it is difficult to quantify the risks of UVA exposure during repeated gel manicure sessions," Stern says. There's much variability with respect to types of lamps, exposure times, positioning of skin, skin types, etc. 


"We do know that repeated exposure to UVA from sunlight or tanning machines is mutagenic and can cause skin cancer; the question remains as to how much of a risk typical gel manicures pose," she adds—which means we need more studies to confirm the risk. 

But, we do know that UVA rays contribute to photoaging.

Are gel nails worse than acrylic?

Both gel nails and acrylic nails have an aggressive application and removal process that includes intense filing and often ripping off the gel polish or acrylic nail, which can contribute to breakage. In addition, acrylic and gel nails are often removed using acetone, which can be drying to the nail and cuticle, resulting in brittleness and breakage, especially when used over time.

The takeaway

While there are many things out there that are worse for you than gel nail polish, it's certainly not great for your tips. Most of the damage comes from the aggressive and drying removal and application process, but UVA light exposure can't be ignored, either. If you're ready to remove your gel, do so gently and avoid aggressively pulling the gel off too soon. Your nails might be frail afterward, but they will grow back in time—especially if you follow these tips

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