You probably are familiar with the once-ubiquitous acrylic nails sported by many women, typically as a “French manicure,” with thick white tips and a natural color polish—which look anything but natural.  Acrylic nails look thick and artificial, they are extremely costly to apply, difficult to remove, and cause significant injury to the nail plate and surrounding skin when they are worn for years and years.

Over the last few years, another type of long-lasting nail treatment has become extremely popular—-gel or shellac nails.  These nail polishes last for two, and sometimes three, weeks without chipping and give a shiny appearance to the nail. Sometimes stenciled designs are painted on the top of the gel— these photos are posted all over Instagram every day.  

And if this seems too good to be true, well, it actually is.  Gel nails look great, last much longer than traditional manicures, and are not too expensive to apply.  However, the removal of the gel is very traumatic to the nail plate and, after months of having this treatment done, it’s not unusual for the nails to peel, crack and become almost paper-thin.  

So, here’s the scoop in the most simplified way I can explain it:

The gel itself is formed when a polymer similar to that which is used in dental implants, called polymethyl methacrylate or PMMA (Plexiglass) is cured under either UV or LED light to form a hard coating.  Three coats of polish are applied very thinly so that the UV light can penetrate and harden each coat before the next one is applied, and the final step is a swipe with alcohol over the nail surface to give it the shine that characterizes these gel, or shellac, nails.  The base coat forms a stronger bond with the actual nail plate than the bond between the nail and the nail bed itself. For this reason, it’s almost impossible to peel or pick the gel (shellac) polish off the nail.

In order to remove these gels , the fingertips must be soaked in acetone for at least 10 minutes to soften them, and then the manicurist uses a spatula-like metal scraper to tease the gel off the nail.  The act of scraping, if done forcefully, will actually shear off layer after layer of nail plate. Eventually the nails are left so thin that they can bend on the slightest touch and separate from the nail bed, showing white areas beneath the nail.  In addition, the acetone used to soak and soften the gel is extremely drying to the skin, which can result in cracking and fissuring of the fingertips.

So,  is it ok to have this sort of nail treatment?  If you are going on a long vacation and know that you will not have time to reapply nail polish (and if this is important to you), having gel nails done every so often is not a terrible thing.  If you have a special occasion and want to “dress up” your hands, same reasoning applies. But I discourage anyone from doing these on a regular basis. My rule of thumb is—do not do gel manicures more frequently than every two weeks, and not for more than two months at a time.  Give yourself a two month break before starting again. Do not allow your nail technician to scrape forcefully, and soak your hands for an adequate amount of time to soften the gel, covering your hands with gloves to keep the acetone in. When you expose your hands to the UV light while hardening the polish, make sure to be wearing sun protective gloves (with just the fingertips exposed) so that no sun damage will occur.  Brown spots can be seen on the skin after just several exposures to the UV lights, or even the LED lights which work more quickly.

And powder dip nails?  These are a newer variation on gels which don’t require exposure to UV light to cure.  However, there is nothing sanitary about dipping your fingertips into a pot of colored powder into which other hands have dipped.  Remember that the wart virus, one of the most common things to afflict hands, is quite contagious, and it’s no joy to get rid of warts.  They can plague you for years.

And with any type of nail procedure in a salon, these rules ALWAYS APPLY:


Remember—nail fungus, warts, and paronychia (inflamed or infected cuticles) are not uncommon after manicures and pedicures when the above guidelines are not adhered to.  Save yourself aggravation—and money—over the long haul and purchase your own set of tools and insist on using them. You might even start a trend in your nail salon!


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