Hate to Say It, But Gel Manicures Are Actually Really Bad for You

In defense of a good ol’ fashioned polish.

gel manicure

Beware the beautiful yet harmful gel manicure. | iStock/Kristina Jovanovic.

I can hear the pitchforked, gel-crazed riots already: “But gel lasts so much longer!” and “You don’t know anything about nails!” etc. Yes, gel manis do last longer than a classic polish. And no, a classic polish can’t compete with gel’s instant drying allure. But the last gel mani I got is the last gel mani I’ll ever get, thanks to seven (count ’em, seven!) nails breaking off painfully low, and all ten feeling paper-thin after “safely” removing the gel. Not to mention, while I was baking my fingertips under the UV light, the skin underneath my nails felt like it was boiling. Turns out, gel manicures are bad for you, straight up. I chatted with a dermatologist and some Philly salon owners about the safety concerns gel manicures raise, and why they really aren’t worth it in the long run.

  • Your nails can’t breathe. Nails are part of your body, needing oxygen in order to thrive. When you cover your nails with polish (especially thick gel) for a long period of time, the oxygen transfer is cut off from the nail matrix (the restorative tissue at the base of each nail containing nerves, lymph and blood vessels), says Monique Mason of Moko Organic Beauty Studio. Nails without oxygen become extremely weak, which is why they break so often (and so low).
  • That UV light is bad for you (but you already know this). We live in an age where skin cancer is at an all-time high, the ozone layer is thinning rapidly, and sun exposure is a serious health risk. Dr. Kenneth Wasserman, a clinical educator at Jefferson and Drexel University Hospitals and team derm for the Baltimore Orioles, says, “UV light, whether artificial or natural, increases your risk of skin cancer. We get a certain amount just from daily activities; any extra artificial UV light adds to it, which leads to faster photo-aging (wrinkles, brown spots), permanent damage to the skin, and increased risk of all kinds of skin cancer — especially deadly malignant melanoma.” Guess what? Those few minutes your fingers spend under the UV lights curing your gel mani are adding to life’s tally of UV exposure. No matter how hard we try to rationalize it (It’s just a few minutes; how bad can it be?), the doc says it’s no bueno for your skin. Stop ignoring the facts! Melanoma and skin cancer can occur under the nails, usually showing up as brown spots. If think it’s a bruise but can’t recall slamming your finger in the car door, get a biopsy ASAP — Dr. Wasserman says melanoma under the nails can be deadly because it’s often diagnosed very late.
  • Most shellac is made with harmful toxins. The major culprits found in gel polish formulas include formaldehyde (!) and BHA, a chemical that’s been classified by the National Toxicology Program as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” — yikes. Since the nail is porous, these toxic chemicals that stay on your body’s surface for weeks at a time start to sink into your bloodstream. It’s no joke that pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to not get manicures or pedicures, says Hustine Mitchell of Mi Cumbia Organica. For a healthier gel option, try Mi Cumbia’s UV-free, acetone-free mani shellac that doesn’t contain those nasty ingredients listed above.
  • Your nail tech is at risk. Think having formaldehyde soak into your bloodstream for ten days is bad? Consider your manicurist and the exposure he or she has to these awful chemicals all day long, every single workday. Nail industry workers have alarmingly increased rates of breast cancer, respiratory disease and even birth deformities, says Mitchell. Make sure your nail salon takes good care of its employees by using safe products before popping into the next place that advertises a cheap mani.
  • Gel removal is the worst. Not only is it the most arduous, cumbersome task of all time; it’s also super unhealthy for your nails and skin to soak in acetone. Shocker! Lisa McElhone, owner of the pristine Lacquer Lounge in Rittenhouse and Old City says the gel removal process is seriously dehydrating, and instead recommends a hybrid polish like the CND Vinylux mani (at no extra charge!). It uses a hardening top coat that’ll make your mani last somewhere between classic and gel mani lifetime, but comes off like regular polish with just a few swipes of remover — not a 20-minute soak.

Of course, not everyone hates gel like I do. If your nails of steel can go gel mani after gel mani with no breakage and no weakness, and if you can ignore the facts above stating that gel manis are bad for you, more power to you. As for me, I’ll take my recovering, paper-thin nails and sit under the fans as long as it takes to fully dry that classic polish, knowing that a chipped, short-lived manicure is far better than a toxic one.