Gel Manicures: The Survival Guide

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Is there any more efficient way to rock nail color than with a gel manicure? They last for twelve-plus days of chipless wear with a ridiculously ultraslick finish. They can make it through a two-week tropical vacation and still emerge a perfect ten. And, now that loads of nail companies sell at-home kits, they don’t even require a trip to the salon. No question about it, the fever for gel manis is stronger than ever. But at the end of the day, your nails may not be.
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“When it comes to gel manicures, we don’t know if it’s the chemical in the polish that’s being applied to the nail, or if it’s the manner in which the polish has to be removed (by soaking each nail for ten minutes or more in acetone), but we do know that gel manicures cause a decrease in nail density,” says Assistant Professor of Dermatology at NYU and dermatologist Chris Adigun, who also oversees NYU’s Nail Disorder Clinic. She cites a recent University of Miami study in which ultrasound and confocal reflection microscopy was used to measure the depth of the nail before and after gel manicures.
A thinning nail plate is just the half of it: Possible carcinogens associated with UV drying lamps used in some gel manicure procedures can do further damage to hands and nails. (The jury is still out on whether UV dryers are harmful — a widely publicized study from 2009 that showed two women contracted cancerous lesions on their hands after exposure to UV dryers has since been scientifically refuted.) What’s more, for some gel manicure recipients, allergies to the bonding chemical in the polish (the same stuff used in Krazy Glue) can cause nails to peel and split after removing gel polish.
So, what’s the best way to battle premature aging of the hands, exposure to possible carcinogens, weakening of the nails, and still get your 12-day shine on? “The biggest issue is hydration,” Adigun says. “Your hands get exposed to a lot of physical and chemical trauma. You want as much hydration as possible before you get a gel manicure and after you remove your gel manicure.” She suggests using skin creams, like Dermalogica’s Multivitamin Hand and Nail Treatment, which also battles premature aging with antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E. A broad-spectrum sunscreen in SPF 30 or above, such as Julep’s Daylight Defense For Hands and Face, is also a must, and not just before you slide your hands under UV or LED drying machines. To provide an added layer of protection against photoaging when getting gelled, snip the fingertips off a pair of thin gloves and wear them at your next appointment.
Finally, even with careful nail hydration and hand protection, Adigun recommends taking an occasional break from back-to-back gel manis to hydrate and repair nails. Dare to go bare for the sporadic week or two, no matter how unglamorous it may feel; it’ll keep your tips hard as, well, nails.
Photographed by Amelia Alpaugh
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