Do These At-Home Gel Polishes Stand Up To The Ultimate Test?

Photographed by Tory Rust. Photographed by Tory Rust. The word "gel" used to mean a laborious nail process — one that required master precision, a UV setting light, and about $40 in cold, hard cash. Recently, it's becoming a looser term, extending all the way to advanced lacquers that (supposedly) harness the long-wearing abilities of gel — without the hassle of application or removal.

But do these new formulas live up to their name? To find out, we enlisted the ultimate nail testers: a ceramicist, a chef, and a florist. Think you're hard on your polish? Try digging your hands into a piece of pottery, preparing a layered cake, or weaving intricate flower crowns — and that's just the start of our experiment.

Read on to find out exactly how it all went down — and the polishes that did, and didn't, pass the torture tests. (Spoiler: The results aren't what you think.)
The Ground Rules
We provided each of our testers with a newly released, gel-inspired nail lacquer along with its accompanying top or basecoat. The polishes used were all DIY-friendly and required no special light or removal process, but to keep things fair, we sent our three testers for the same salon manicure, each priced at $25.

Since we already know the longevity of professional gels, we decided to pit these lacquers against regular polishes. We painted one hand with the gel-inspired polish in question, according to the directions, and the other hand got our "control lacquer" — the same leading salon brand for each tester.

Then we asked our testers to go about their lives and report back any and every observation they found. We weren't wearing lab coats, but the many check-ins did get intense: "So, how exactly would you describe the chip? Is it peeling? Do you think it will grow? Can you email me another picture?"
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Photographed by Tory Rust.
Flower Power
Tester: Christy Doramus, New York-based florist and founder of Crowns By Christy
Polish: Wet n Wild 1 Step WonderGel Nail Color in Crime of Passion, $4.99
Process:
Doramus's handmade, fresh flower crowns are the stuff of free-spirited dreams, but they're also incredibly labor-intensive to create. (Think wire cutters, elaborate weaving, and the occasional thorn prick.) She gave the polishes a double-duty test, getting her manicure the week leading up to a beach weekend. "In addition to working on many flower projects, I was also at the beach in the sand," she says. "And that usually minimizes the length of my manicures — but even with that, this polish lasted!"

The Wet n Wild polish — which requires only two coats, and no basecoat, topcoat, or lamp — looked just like typical polish in terms of texture and thickness, but it wasn't nearly as shiny as Doramus would have liked. "[It's] almost a little matte," she says.

When it came to wear, both hands remained fully intact for the first three days. But on day four, the Wet n Wild color started to wear down at the tips of her nails, while the control polish stood strong. By day five, there were small chips on both hands, but here's where the gel pulled ahead: "When chips appeared, they didn't expand and peel like the [control polish]," Doramus explains.

Throughout the week, the control side's chips grew larger and larger while the gel polish stayed exactly the same. "I could have kept it on my nails for another week if I didn’t mind a few small chips here or there, as opposed to the control polish, which was done for at day seven," says Doramus.

Doramus notes that her manicures typically don't last for more than five days; 10 max for gels. "So all in all, it was a successful week!" she says.

As far as removal, both polishes wiped right off with acetone, with no staining.

Verdict: "I would definitely try this again. I liked the polish and color," she explains, "but I would probably apply a topcoat for a little extra shine."
Photographed by Tory Rust.
Break The Mold
Tester:
Sarah Anne Bargatze Richardson, a Los Angeles-based ceramic artist and owner of Earth Sign Ceramics
Polish: Essie Gel Couture in Caviar Blue and Gel Couture Top Coat, $25 total
Process:
Richardson is the woman behind some of Echo Park’s raddest pottery, forming and firing her bowls, vases, and other handmade ceramics within hours of returning home from her manicure.

This new Essie formula doesn't require a basecoat — just two coats of color and a special topcoat. It looked as thick as regular polish and set a little faster than the control varnish, Richardson notes. Plus, it was super shiny.
“After a day of work, my nails still looked great — no chips, just a few scuffs and indentations on both hands, but nothing noticeable,” she says. The second day saw an interesting change: The control polish stayed intact, while the gel lacquer started to recede slightly at the tips. “Both polishes dulled a bit and had some scratching, but still looked pretty nice overall,” she says.

Between days three and five, both polishes stayed about the same, but on day six the gel started to show its strength: The control polish finally started to chip, but the gel lacquer stayed intact, minus the slightly visible wear at the tips.

By day eight, Richardson reports that the control polish was super chipped, while the gel formula remained chip-free. She adds that “with less heavy wear-and-tear, this polish would probably hold up really well.”

She didn't remove the polishes until day nine, when the control was chipped to oblivion and the gel was still going strong. Both polishes came off easily with regular remover, and showed no signs of staining.

Verdict: “I will definitely use this again!” Richardson exclaims.
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Photographed by Tory Rust.
Sweet Operator
Tester: Allison Kave, Brooklyn-based chef and co-owner of Butter & Scotch
Polish: Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab Pro Nail Polish in Splish Splash and Gel Lab Pro Top & Base Coat Kit, $44 total
Process:
On Instagram, Kave's days look like our ultimate dream job: eating pie and sipping cocktails. But behind every crafted post are even more crafted recipes that require heavy rolling, kneading, and rigorous mixing. "Basically, my hands are always in and out of water," she explains.

Kave's first impressions of the Deborah Lippmann kit were great: The color was punchy and bright, and both the base and topcoats were incredibly thick, almost like professional gel, and set down to a regular polish look. Her manicurist was especially impressed with how easily the lacquer went on and how quickly it dried.

Both the gel and the control lasted for four days before chips started to form — a marked improvement from her regular manicures, which chip after two days. But then something strange happened: "The gel actually started chipping first," Kave says. "But to be fair, it was my dominant hand, so I probably used it a bit more."

The chips continued to grow over the next few days, and the control polish quickly caught up. And while both manicures still lasted longer than hers usually do, there wasn't much difference between the gel and the regular polish by day seven. "If I hadn't looked at what hands were getting what polish, I wouldn't be able to tell which was which at this point," Kave says.

Both hands stayed shiny for days, dulling at the same rate, and came off easily without staining.

Verdict: "I would probably try it again; it still held up better than my manicures normally do," says Kave. "But I may try a second coat of the topcoat to see if that helps it hold up a little more."
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