The Dangers of Gel and Shellac Manicures

You’re probably wearing one right now: The Gel Manicure. I was just backstage with one of my favorite nail technicians at New York Fashion Week who claimed that there was no way she’d be able to rock her stunning nail art without the incredible adhering capabilities of gels. And while at a warm-weather wedding a month ago, all the women I asked claimed they simply weren’t able to keep up with regular manicures—that the gel made their lives more convenient, their color longer-lasting. To them, it’s a miracle. A life-saver. And any mom can agree—chasing after little ones, running a thousand errands, and juggling schedules doesn’t exactly leave time for a regular manicure (or, an easily chipped nail polish). But, are there potential side effects?

For those who have never gone through the process, a gel manicure basically works like this: A base coat is cured under a UV lamp, followed by two layers of special-formula nail polish, followed by a top coat. To remove the ultra-resistant gel manicure, one must have the polish soaked in acetone for some time (according to multiple reports, it seems like this can go anywhere from 5-12 minutes) before starting over. The result is a chip-free polish for up to three weeks.

Jenna Hipp, a Los Angeles-based celebrity nail stylist, is skeptical when it comes to gels. She claims the process has “results that may look beautiful for two weeks but could cause months of damage to the natural nail.” Hipp has even seen the downside of gels on her A-list clientele. “I’ve seen the damage done to my clients’ nails and have heard even more horror stories and requests to repair the delicate nail tissue.” She adds, “Many manicurists have their clients soak nails and hands in acetone, which absorbs into the body and into the bloodstream. Others file down with a drill, often leaving the natural nail paper thin and in desperate need of a nine-month-to-a-year healing process.”

But the mishaps in service are often where the controversy begins. For a little perspective—CND, known for their popular Shellac service, began certifying only nail salons that correctly perform its gel procedures. According to an August 2012 article in the New York Times, barely half of the facilities that offer the service in Manhattan actually qualified. In addition, OPI advises against soaking the hand in acetone. It is their company policy to use acetone finger pads to minimize damage to the hands.

Still, damage to nail beds is a common complaint among gel users—and, might I add, the single-most frequent complaint I receive as a beauty editor. A study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology used two separate technologies (Ultrasound and RCN or reflectance confocal microscopy) to measure the nail bed pre- and post-gel manicure. Both scans showed thinning of the nail plate after the manicure (the RCN showing a difference of as much as .03 centimeters). Dr. Jeanette Graf, a renowned dermatologist, notes that “regular application of acetone to the nail plate to clean older polish is also potentially damaging to the nail plate in the long run.” Acetone is usually avoidable with regular manicures—especially if a non-toxic option is requested or provided by the client (see: Priti NYC or RGB Cosmetics‘ green remover formulas).

But who could forget that other pressing issue? The UV light. In all fairness, OPI released an LED alternative—which, should you get a gel manicure, you should absolutely make sure you request from your tech. Subjecting your hands to UV light on a regular basis is no joke. (Remember every single magazine ever in existence ordering you to abandon the tanning bed? Same light. Same rays.)

“The more frequently the manicure is performed, the more cumulative the UV exposure and subsequent risk of skin cancer becomes,” says Dr. Graf.

Hipp adds, “Most don’t realize the UV light required to ‘cure’ the manicure is 3-5 times stronger than a tanning bed.”

Above all of the warnings, there’s also this to consider: Why gels? It seems like such an interesting trend for the increasingly knowledgeable and sophisticated beauty consumer. Here we are, with more beauty blogs and experts than ever, practically 100 percent of whom encourage a cleaner beauty routine. Just when women are forcing mass brands to reconsider parabens and silicones in skincare and makeup—hello, safety of our children—we’re faced with an acetone-UV-light-combo manicure phenomenon.

So many nail brands—RGB (of which Hipp has a line), Priti NYCJulepKure BazaarJin Soon, etc—promise formulas that are practically toxin-free.

The question really shouldn’t be, “Are gels dangerous?” It’s more like: Why even risk it? There are more options in nail world than ever, and they just keep getting better and better.

So maybe it’s time to consult the agenda for a regular manicure. And, if you’re lucky enough to have a little girl, why not bring her along? You’re never too young to enjoy a good foot massage.