Nails are the ultimate accessory. From French manicures to glittery nail art, your fingers can certainly make a statement. Want a manicure with staying power? Gels can last up to 3 weeks and provide a glossy finish without chipping or peeling.

Plus, the durable gel means you can wash dishes without worrying about ruining your nail job…. but could it be ruining your natural nails? And can nail gels affect your overall health? Here’s what you need to know.

person painting their nails with red nail polishShare on Pinterest
Audrey Shtecinjo/Stocksy United

One of the most extensive studies to date looking at the side effects of gel nail polish took place in a survey, involving 2,118 respondents. In the self-reported questionnaire, almost half reported side effects while applying the gel nail polish, and 1 in 5 while wearing it.

Potential side effects during the application or wearing gel nail polish include:

  • a sensation of pain and burning
  • itchiness
  • swelling, redness or discoloration, scaling, or drying nail fold
  • changes to the nail plate

Less than 1 percent of folks reported a rash on their hands or body, eczema, or swollen lips.

Gel removal is the most likely stage to cause damage

The study above also found that 3 in 4 people experienced side effects after removing their gel manicure, including:

  • weakened nails
  • splitting nails
  • white spots on the nail plates
  • grooves on the nail plates
  • changes in color of the nail plates
  • onycholysis or nail bed separation
  • changes in nail form
  • scales developing under the nail plate

But not all removal methods were as likely to cause probs. The study found that these side effects were far more likely to happen when participants performed (and removed) the manicure themselves.

One of the first things that usually hits you when you walk into a nail salon is the strong chemical smell. Not all of these substances are necessarily harmful, but many gel polishes can contain some potential nasties like:

  • dibutyl phthalate (DBP), which is a plasticizer that makes products more flexible
  • triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), another plasticizer and suspected endocrine-disrupter
  • toluene suspends the color evenly and can lead to skin irritation and inflammation
  • formaldehyde, which is linked to some cancers, is used as a hardening agent

There’s still some debate about whether these chemicals are considered toxic, but formaldehyde is particularly concerning. The Environmental Protection Agency says that research associated it with certain cancers, and it can also cause contact dermatitis, especially if you have sensitive skin.

What these chemicals mean for your health

Some research even suggests that some chemicals in nail polish can leach into your body.

In a small 2015 study, researchers tested the pee of 26 women who had recently painted their nails. Compared to placebo manicures wearing gloves and fake nails, TPHP levels increased sharply in every participant in the active nail painting group. Remember, TPHP is an endocrine-disruptor, which means it messes with your hormones.

After your nails get a coat of gel paint, they’ll bask in the glow of an LED nail lamp to harden and set.

The LED bulbs emit ultraviolet (UV) radiation — but think sunlight rather than Chernobyl. Over time, exposure to UV radiation can damage your skin, leading to premature wrinkles and age spots, and could even lead to skin cancer.

But a 2013 study suggested that the limited exposure you’d get at a nail salon isn’t a big deal. These LED nail lamps are generally considered low risk by the FDA as long as they’re used as directed.

FYI: If you’re more sensitive to UV radiation (because of a condition or medication, for example) you may want to pass on this exposure.

Gel nails typically take a little longer than a regular manicure. You can expect to spend about an hour, but it does depend on the state of your nails and if you’re already wearing gel polish when you arrive.

Step 1. Nail prep

First, your manicurist will prep your nails. They’ll push back your cuticles with a hand sanitizing product to keep the nails from absorbing oils. (Yes, oil is good for your cuticles, but save it for after the manicure.)

Next, they’ll trim away any excess cuticle, and shape your nails. Then, they’ll cleanse your nail bed with alcohol and a product to balance the pH to ensure that gel sticks.

Step 2. Base gel

The base gel is a base coat that helps the real deal gel stick to your nails. This also prevents the pigments in the gel from staining your nail beds (which is never a great look). You’ll then pop your nails under the nail lamp for around 15 seconds, depending on the manufacturer’s instructions.

Step 3. Topcoats

Now for the good stuff. Usually, you’ll have two coats of color applied, with a cure of 30 seconds under the nail lamp for each.

Then, you’ll get a topcoat applied to keep the color looking slick and shiny. Again, this will be cured under the lamp.

Most gel polishes leave a sticky dispersion layer behind after curing, which your nail tech will wipe away with alcohol.

Step 4. Cuticle oil

Ooh! Look at those nails shining like no one’s business! At this point, your nails are complete and shinier than a new car. But before you leave, your manicurist will apply a layer of cuticle oil to keep them looking tip-top.

Fresh gels look sexy AF, but how do you keep them that way? Here are some things to avoid when you’re rocking gel nails to keep your natural nail as healthy as possible.

  • Not using cuticle oil. Healthy nails are slightly flexible and need hydration to keep them that way. Using a cuticle oil combats nail dryness, which can lead to brittle nails that break easily.
  • Leaving the gel on for too long. Yes, it can be tempting if they still look perfect, but ideally, you should remove your gel manicure after 3 weeks max to avoid damaging the nail bed and cuticles.
  • Leaving damaged gel on your nails. If the gel gets damaged, chips, and begins to lift, moisture can get underneath, which can lead to bacteria and fungus growth. Eww! You’re better off removing your gels if they’re compromised.
  • Removing the gel yourself. Although it’s tempting to remove a worn-out gel manicure at home, it’s safer to get the professionals involved. Being too rough or using the wrong products can damage your nail bed.

Although it’s not as on-trend and certainly not as durable, traditional nail polish still does the job. In addition, there are tons of new products entering the market with long-lasting formulas designed as a hybrid between classic and gel polish.

If you want a fresh looking manicure for an event, there are always press-on nails to fall back on. Gone are the days of thick, plastic-looking extensions that wouldn’t fool anyone. Nowadays, press-on nails look realistic, come in various designs, and can even last up to a week. And providing you don’t lose any, you can reuse them. Plus, they’re a great option for nail biters.

Gel nails are safe for most people, especially if you save them for special occasions when you and your nails need to shine.

Look for nontoxic products if you can, as nail polish, including gel, can include chemical nasties.

Also, if you go overboard on the mani-pedis, your nails can become dry, brittle, and broken. So, if you want your nails looking on-fleek at all times, consider using classic polish or press-on nails in between gel manicures.