Is Picking Off Gel Polish Bad For Nails? Here’s What An Expert Thinks

Illustrated by Olivia Santner
Dear Daniela,
Is it really that bad to pick off your gel polish? I know a salon would say not to but surely they’re just trying to get you to rebook? Also it’s so tempting and so hard not to when they start lifting off! Please help me. This is my secret shame.
Jess, 32
There are a handful of so-called 'beauty rules' that you can ignore. For example: Pluck above your eyebrow line if you want to! You don’t have to curl your lashes if you find it arduous, I’m not gonna show up in your bedroom. Hell, a makeup wipe is better than nothing in a pinch! But then there are some that you really ought to follow and, annoyingly, they’re usually the more time-consuming ones. Yes, you have to wear sunscreen every day. Yes, you have to take your makeup off before bed. And no, you really shouldn’t pick off your gels.
This is less because salons are dastardly and conniving and want to squeeze you for every last penny (though I really do think removal should be free, provided you got your nails done at that salon when you rebook – just like hair salons should give you a free cuppa) and more to do with how a gel manicure works. For the record, I’m using 'gel' to describe both gel and Shellac, but they are different, with Shellac actually being a bit of a mixture of polish and gel and proprietary to CND, while gel is a catch-all for multiple brands like OPI and Bio Sculpture.
But when either polish is 'cured' under the UV light, it sets onto the nail in a bonded way that means it’s not going to chip or be dissolved by normal polish remover. Just because you can nudge at the edge of the polish and get it to lift away if you’re persistent, doesn’t mean you’re simply lifting away polish: your nail’s coming with it, too.
"You’re picking off the top layer of the nail plate, ultimately making it thinner," cautioned Natalia Mihailova, DryBy’s head of education. "Imagine removing your makeup and taking off the top layer of your skin with it, or scratching off your makeup – that is exactly what happens to the nails if you peel them off yourself. You’re taking a layer off with the Shellac." Slightly Saw-esque mental picture aside, I can see why you might scoff a bit at this. Your nails aren’t bleeding when you peel the polish off, right? It doesn’t hurt, right? It can’t be that bad, can it?

Well, yes. Your nails are actually about 10 times more porous than your skin and with constant hand-washing and sanitising, they’re repeatedly exposed to drying elements, so if you’re also picking off a protective layer? Sheesh, that’s not good. Natalia did say that if you find it too difficult to schedule in-salon removal, then next time you have a gel manicure you can ask your technician for some tips on the safest removal technique, but essentially, you’re going to need to buy acetone, cotton pads and foils, and do it the way they do.
As an aside, I’m currently on a Shellac detox after really going for it over the summer, and I found twice-daily applications of CND RescueRX really had my nails looking better in about 10 days. That, plus the CND SolarOil (two products Natalia also name-checked) has stopped me feeling quite so pitiful about the state of my nails. That is, until I cave, most likely around Christmas, and go back for two coats of Beau, thank you very much. Natalia, save me room in your diary!

Got a question for our resident beauty columnist Daniela Morosini? No problem, qualm or dilemma is too big, small or niche. Email deardaniela@vice,com, including your name and age for a chance to have your question answered. All letters to 'Dear Daniela' become the property of Refinery29 and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

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