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Gel Manicures: Safe or Unsafe?

Manicure by Elizabeth West. Find Elizabeth at the Michael Spitale Salon in Rochester, NY.
Photo by Karley Ziegler Mott.

There has been a great deal of talk in recent months about whether or not gel manicures are safe. Safe? Unsafe? Let's ask the expert and learn more about gel nail polish from someone who works with this medium five days a week.

I spoke to licensed Nail Technician Elizabeth West of the Michael Spitale Salon in Rochester, New York to give us the lowdown on gel manicures with her expert point of view. She tells me that "if done carefully and properly, gel polish is not all that different than classic polish. True, it isn't '5 free' like many polishes are going now, but, when applied and removed correctly and with care, gel polish won't damage your natural nails."

Why Gels?

I love anything and everything nail-related just as much as I adore a good mascara.

I love having my nails done. One could say I am a bit nail obsessed. Do you know what I did before I went to the hospital to deliver my boys? My nails. Even though I couldn't see over my belly, I wanted a nice pedicure.

I have so many bottles of 3-free and 5-free healthier nail polishes. I have Jamberry nail wraps, glitter polishes, lacquer, and even a home gel kit that the lovely folks at Gelish sent for me to try. I had my first gel manicure in December of 2012. I don't get them done frequently, but they are amazing for special occasions!

I have had two different brands of soak off gel polish used on me -- Gelish and Artistic Colour (which is what Michelle Obama has had on her nails). The main appeal is that they are rock hard, shiny, and long wearing. The durability is a huge draw. In fact, they are very chip resistant! You can walk right out of the salon with completely dry nails. We have cold winter in New York and I have put my gloves right on after my gel manicures.


I have gotten full 3 weeks out of my gels. The shortest time of wear was one week, but I think that I may have been rougher on them that normal. Honestly, I am quite sure they would last even longer if my nails weren't healthy and growing, but the new growth is visible and my nails needed to be shortened anyway. Just be careful not to use your nails as tools.

When I say that gel nails are long lasting, I also should mention that they remain glossy and shiny for about two weeks.

The Soak Off Process

This is where I see horror stories about gels. Some people have reported sitting with their hands in bowls of acetone to remove their nails and then have someone filing down the nails and scraping the remaining color off. Please know that this is NOT the norm and this is not how the process is supposed to be! In fact, West tells us that "there is NO REASON WHATSOEVER that an electric file should EVER touch your natural nail."

Please be careful if this is the removal process for your gels, as it is not the norm.

Each individual nail is covered and wrapped in foil so your skin doesn't get dried out or soaked in acetone. It is a careful process to ensure that your skin is protected. After the 15 minutes, there is no harsh scraping with sharp tools or electric files. It shouldn't be like that. There were a couple little polish flecks that Elizabeth gently removed and she VERY GENTLY took a yellow buffing block (like most of us have at home) to buff my nails ever so carefully before doing a new color.

I looked over my nails carefully and there was absolutely no damage and my nails actually were in better condition.

It is crucial that you find a reputable salon that truly cares about the health and safety of their customers and a highly trained nail tech who doesn't take shortcuts to get you in and out faster.

Curing Comments

When you get gel polish, they need to cure. I know Dr. Oz mentioned recently that he was concerned about UV lights for the curing of gels, but most reputable salons now uses LED lights instead and my nail polish is cured in just 30 seconds. That is all it takes to completely dry the nail color! Placing the nails under the LED lights is super quick, painless, and easy. If the salon happens to still use UV lights, West says that "any good salon still using UV lamps will also provide special gloves that protect all but your nail plates from the UV light."

The Nitty Gritty

I cannot tell you this is the safest option for nails. The safest option would be never to put any color on your nails. We all have choices to make--and getting highlights in my hair and my nails done I suppose are things I am willing to do because of how I feel about having those things done. We all make trade offs sometimes. I don't wear heels because they aggravate my old break. I can't stand sore feet. Or blisters. Plus, I am clumsy and have been known to get my heel caught in the sidewalk cracks. That's why I only wear them about 5 times a year. On the other hand, it is a trade off many women are willing to make.

While I cannot say, "Go get gel nails--they are totally safe and green," I can tell you that you will not be breathing in the odor of nail polish or nail polish remover every couple days anymore. We are talking every couple weeks. As an aside, I have never detected an odor when I've gotten gel nails done. Maybe it is just me, but it is worth mentioning.

I can also tell you that both Gelish and Artistic Colour are BOTH 3-free, which means there is no toluene, formaldehyde or DBP (toxic phthalates).

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