It’s hard to imagine life before gel manicures, isn’t it? No drying time, a glossy finish, and two-week staying power is the stuff nail dreams are made of—especially for those about to say "I do" who want chip-free nails from the rehearsal dinner through their honeymoon. But are they all that safe?
It’s a question that’s been contested and debated almost since the gel manicure has been invented: Should you really be placing your hands under UV lamps in the name of ring selfies? Since there have been hot takes all around, we decided to ask NYC-based dermatologists Joshua Zeichner, MD, and Shari Marchbein, MD, for their expert opinions.
Meet the Expert
Read on for expert intel on the long-term effects of UV lamps, protective measures to consider, and manicure alternatives that deliver similar results without the worry.
UV Light Concerns
For most professional gel manicures, the polish needs to be dried and cured under a special ultraviolet lamp. As one might assume, exposure to this type of light is not the healthiest thing in the world. Zeichner explains, “Excessive exposure to ultraviolet light, even in the form of a nail polish dryer, can increase the risk of the exposed skin to premature aging.” The skin on the hands is also thinner than other parts of the body losing elasticity faster and showing age at a much more rapid rate.
There have, in fact, been a few reports of skin cancers, primarily basal cell skin cancer, developing on the hands as a result of these manicures, according to Marchbein. “It is unknown, ultimately, what repeated exposure to small amounts of UV light every two weeks [the typical time in between manicures] will do in the long term," she says.
Unfortunately, aside from the potential damage to the skin of your hands and around the fingernails and cuticles, Marchbein says that gel manicures can also weaken your nails—similar to artificial and acrylic nail applications. So, she explains, “My preference is to only get gel manicures if there is a special occasion, such as traveling for an extended period or a wedding. Then, regular manicures for the rest of the year.”
How to Protect Your Nails From UV Light
Both doctors suggest that sunscreen and fingerless gloves can help to lessen any risk. According to Marchbein, if you must get a gel mani, you can protect yourself by applying “a broad spectrum SPF 30-plus prior to manicures” and “wearing a UPF [ultraviolet protection factor] glove with the fingertips cut off.”
If the thought of sitting for a gel manicure still makes you uneasy, Marchbein suggests you skip the gel and get a regular manicure. She adds that a gel alternative, such as Gel Couture by Essie, “definitely lasts longer than a regular manicure and doesn’t require the same upkeep as gels.”
DIY Gel Manicure Alternatives
Thanks to the visual ASMR glory of their application process, dip powder nails has become the social media trend du jour. The technique is popular for its long-lasting durability (up to a month!) and easy at-home application. The system follows a sequence of applying a bonding agent onto clean nails, dipping or painting overtop with the colored powder, and then sealing everything in with a topcoat to achieve results similar to those of gel nails. The main drawback is that the removal process requires soaking, similar to acrylics, which can be a bit time-consuming. It's important to be diligent about doing this correctly as failing to do so or attempting to peel off the color (eek!) will damage the nail plate and weaken the nail.
If anything brings a wave of adolescent nostalgia, it's the humble press-on nail. But long gone are the days of those chunky, ill-fitting nails as a new era of press-ons has emerged. The market is overflowing with a variety of various shapes, colors, and embellishments to suit every style—and you can even have them custom-designed if you're feeling fancy-schmancy. From coffins to sporty squovals and feminine almond shapes, we love this option for testing out the latest tip trends with zero downtime. To apply just add a small drop of nail glue to the natural nail and press the synthetic nail on top. As with dip nails, the removal process isn't without its drawbacks. We recommend painting a base layer of nail polish to protect the nail beds before applying the nail glue and using warm, soapy water to weaken the adhesive when removing.
Classic Nail Polish
Okay, regular old nail polish may not be the most exciting option, but a classic is a classic for a reason. And if anything has withstood the test of time in the nail space, it's a tried-and-true lacquer. Their formulas, however, are anything but stagnant with many brands not only removing toxic ingredients but also adding skin-loving nutrients to leave nails healthier than before. While this mani may not be the most long-lasting—and, of course, there's some drying time required—we consider it a small price to pay for strong, nourished nails.
Consider nail stickers the oh so convenient (and long-awaited!) lovechild of the press-on nail and traditional nail polish. There are tons of styles and colors to choose from, but, unlike press-on nails, these mimic the shape of the natural nail and won't add length or a snazzy new tip shape. With a fool-proof system where you literally just peel-and-stick onto clean, natural nails and file off the excess, the process couldn't be easier or faster. (You can even do your nails on a plane.) Results will typically last up to a week and sometimes longer, depending on the material (gel polish, for example) of the sticker.