Don’t Get Between Me and My Gel Manicure

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 4.35.00 PMLast weekend my daughter begged for a sleepover with one of her school friends. Since it was a rare weekend that we didn’t have much going on, and since one of her best friends recently moved out of state, I agreed and planned for an evening of movie watching and popcorn eating. When I picked up her friend though, they both asked if I would take them to get their nails painted. Looking down at my own shoddy nails, they didn’t have to twist my arm before I agreed, and 10 minutes later I found myself picking out a color for my first ever gel manicure.

Recently, I’ve become more and more dedicated to trying to “detoxify” my beauty routine, seeking out more natural, plant-based beauty products and brands that are more eco-conscious. I’ve found several products to sub out for old favorites, including mascara, lipstick, deodorant, and recently I even found a new brand of safe nail polish and polish remover. I get a manicure about once every six to eight weeks, but have been steering clear of gel manicures for the past several years because I had heard stories about irreversible nail damage and cancer-causing UV lights. Granted, I hadn’t put much effort at all into researching these stories myself and I didn’t really know if these gel manicures were safe or toxic, but in a moment of weakness, I took the plunge. Thirty minutes later when all was said and done, I instantly became obsessed with my new gels and instantly became scared my nails would fall off.

So the next day I turned to my most reliable source to get the low-down on all things health-related: Instagram. Posting a picture of me holding a Moscow Mule, sporting my new fierce gel manicure, I asked my readers, “Without getting all crazy and alarmist, break it down for me, are my nails gonna fall off? They’re totally toxic, right?”

Considering I’ve gotten into heated discussions about the safety of baby carrots in this forum, I braced myself for what was sure to be a litany of finger-wagging and horror stories of gel manicures gone wrong. After all, I was pushing the need to detoxify my beauty routine, and here I was flashing toxic fingers. But what I was expecting couldn’t be further from the response I actually received. The community of readers were almost unanimously supportive of gel manicures and stressed more of the proper maintenance of this type of manicure rather than how damaging they were to my health.

The responses were both totally informative, as well as some of them completely hilarious. One reader wrote:

“I eat organic, non-gmo, free-f**king range everything and I. Do. Not. Care. if this beautiful gel nail polish is slowly killing me. My nails look killer and that makes me happy.”

Another chimed in with the similar sentiment that you only live once, so why not pamper yourself?

Over 50 comments were left by other gel proponents offering up bits of advice on brands to use which have fewer harmful ingredients and how to properly remove the gel polish to minimize damage, which includes soaking the gel off rather than peeling them off. While not all gel systems use UV light for the curing process (turns out the place I got mine uses LED light, which poses no skin cancer risk), for those that do, it was suggested I cover my hands in sunscreen or use protective gloves (sold at beauty supply stores) to help minimize any potential harm. While a few commented that their nails were noticeably weaker after consistent use of gel manicures, most claimed that as long as you care for them correctly, you can use them for years and years with little to no ill effects.

If you’re concerned about using the safest gel brand polishes with non-toxic formulas free of the “big three” (formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, and toluene), which have been linked to several health problems including birth defects and reproductive issues, there are both at-home brands and salon brands available, including Gelish and Sensationail.

Whichever brand you go with, try to find a salon that uses an LED light versus UV light to limit potential cancer risks and sun damage like premature aging and browning. If your salon or at-home kit uses UV light, opt in for a slathering of sunscreen or even protective gloves.

When removing your gel manicures to minimize nail damage, make sure you gently file off a bit of the polish first, then be patient and give them a good soak for at least 10 minutes. And make sure not to pick or peel the gel off, as most claim that’s where the real damage is done. If you notice that your nails seem overly dry after removing your gels, moisturize them with a strong hand lotion and cuticle oil, and even consider giving them a rest for a week or two. But don’t worry, it’s a myth that nails need to “breathe” and can’t do so with gels. Nails can indeed dry out and can benefit from taking a rest from products, but applying gel or any polish doesn’t hinder your nails from “breathing.”

At this point, I am in love with the end result of my first gel manicure. However, I’ve yet to go through the hassle of having them growing out and the tedious process of removing them, a service some salons charge extra for. Perhaps before I fall too head over heels in love with these, I should find out what’s in the gel polish my salon uses and go through a round or two of maintenance to see for myself what it’s like. I’m sure the extra time and expense will cure me of my new-found obsession, but for now, I’m enjoying these lovely nails and the fact that they’ve yet to chip after several rounds of dishes and plenty of down and out dirty play with the kids.

Photo courtesy of Andrea Howe via Instagram

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