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New to Gel Nails? Here’s Everything You Need To Know About This Must-Have Manicure

The switch from traditional polish to gel nails saves time and money.


There’s nothing better than a fresh manicure-pedicure. Even more so if it includes subtle nail art. What I don’t love, however, is when my polish starts to chip, sometimes just days after the mani-pedi. Chipped nails may be rockstar-like to some, but I’ve always preferred a more professional look. When it comes to nails, perfectly polished is my preference. That’s why I changed from traditional nail polish to gel nails. They last so much longer than basic polish, and they have a freshly lacquered look that suggests you just left the salon. Here’s a brief explanation of what gel nails are and why they’re great. 

First things first: What are gel nails? 

A gel manicure is a beauty service wherein a gel-based polish is applied to nails over a base coat, and dried with UV or LED light. The latter part of the process is called “curing,” and it’s essential to ensuring the gel polish dries and hardens correctly. Though it takes mere seconds, curing creates a kind of protective barrier against chipping and stripping. Unlike regular acrylic nail polishes, gel polishes are made from ingredients that adhere to the nail tightly and are strong enough to withstand daily wear without chipping. In short, gel manicures keep nails looking good much longer than a manicure that uses regular polish. 

Is gel the same as Shellac? 

Truth be told, the best gel nails and the best shellac nails are nearly the same thing. Both are long-lasting nail polishes cured under UV light. But where gel manicure is the generic, catch-all name for any manicure cured under a UV lamp, Shellac is a specific brand of gel nails created by Creative Nail Design (CND). Additionally, Shellac combines regular polish and soft gel (as opposed to just gel), so they tend to be more vulnerable to chipping than other gel nails. That said, since Shellac’s formula contains regular polish, it’s typically easier to remove with acetone when you’re ready for a nail color change.  

What are the benefits of getting a gel manicure?

There are several benefits of a gel manicure — here are just a few: 

Gel manicures are long-lasting. 

Arguably the best benefit of gel polish (either DIY at home or painted on by a nail artist) is that it lasts so much longer than traditional nail lacquer. It doesn’t easily chip, break, or peel. They also don’t get the annoying smudges and smears that happen with regular nail polish right after you leave the salon, as the gel is cured quickly under a UV lamp to form a near immediate protective coat. Although results vary depending on care, gel polish typically lasts two to three weeks, while regular polish rarely lasts more than a few days before chipping. 

Gel polish dries fast. 

It can take regular acrylic polish up to an hour to dry — non-acrylic polish takes even longer. This can lead to accidental smudges and ultimately ruin the entire manicure. Gel polish, on the other hand, dries extremely quickly, so there’s no danger of smearing the paint on your way home. Gone are the days of waving your hands in the air as if you’re conducting an invisible orchestra. With a gel manicure, you’re on your way within minutes of the last brushstroke. 

Gel nail tips stay shiny.

Regular manicures with traditional polish tend to fade over time — and they often lose their shine after just a couple of days. Gel nails keep their glossy finish for weeks. Plus, the color doesn’t fade, so your nails stay polished and fresh until your next appointment.   

Gel manicures look natural.

Another benefit of gel nails is that they look and feel just like natural nails. This is because gel polish is applied in thin layers, which makes them flexible. Plus, there’s no thick dip powder or gel mix like you’ll find with acrylic nails. So, if you’re going for a more subtle look or just like the appearance of natural nails, a gel mani at your local nail salon is the way to go.  

Gel polish adds protection.

That hard gel top coat from the curing process acts like a barrier to your natural nails, keeping them safe from harsh environmental chemicals, toxins, and pollutants that can cause damage. For those whose nails are prone to splitting, a gel mani helps to prevent breakage thanks to its cured outer shell.

How is gel polish removed?

Since gel polish is designed to adhere tightly to the nail, it requires removal by a professional nail tech. For the most part, nail technicians remove gels with an acetone soak-off process. First, a file is used on the nail’s surface to help break down the top coat. Then, a small piece of acetone-soaked cotton is placed on each nail and covered with tinfoil. After seven to ten minutes, the foil is removed. (The gel polish will look like it’s crinkled.) Finally, the tech uses a cuticle-pushing stick to gently scrape the jelly-like gel from nails and reveal clean and even nail beds. When all is said and done, the removal process takes no more than fifteen minutes.   

Any nail care concerns?

Although a gel manicure is long-lasting and beautiful, it can be a bit tough on nails. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, gel manicures can cause nail brittleness, peeling, and cracking. In addition, repeated use can increase the risk of premature skin aging and cancer on the hands. This is because the majority of gel manicure lamps emit UV radiation. Fortunately, there are things you can do to keep your nails healthy before, during, and after a gel manicure.

Wear SPF

Prior to getting a manicure, apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater to your hands. This will help protect your skin from the UV radiation used to seal gel polish to the nail.

Ask Questions

Don’t be afraid to ask your nail tech if the nail file, cuticle pusher, and other tools in the manicure kit are sterilized. Dirty tools spread germs and cause infections. 

Apply Moisturizer

To keep your nails healthy and happy, apply a quality moisturizer to your hands daily. This will help to keep skin hydrated and prevent it from drying and flaking.

Don’t Pick

When you notice the color starting to fade, it might be tempting to pick and peel the gel off, but whatever you do — don’t. Instead, make an appointment with your favorite manicurist to have the polish professionally removed. If you’d like, you can also use this appointment to get a color change. 

Take Breaks

It might be tempting to leave your gorgeous gel nails as they are for weeks on end, but it’s important to let your natural nails breathe if you want to keep them healthy. The only way to do this is by taking breaks. You see, back-to-back gel manis subject nails to chemicals and bright light, which can result in brittle, easily broken nails. A little downtime between gel manicures is good for your nails and will keep them in tip-top shape.   

The Final Word

Can’t get behind the chipped polish trend? Not a fan of paint that loses its luster after a few days? Wish your manicure would last longer than a week? Ask your favorite manicurists for gel nails. Like Shellac, a gel manicure uses gel-based polish and requires UV light to dry. This curing light hardens the polish, making it instantly chip-proof and shiny for a minimum of two weeks. 

If a durable nails, glossy, long-lasting manicure is your heart’s desire, a gel manicure is the way to go. Just be sure to apply sunscreen to your hands prior to your nail appointment, as skin can be damaged by UV light. 

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