Gel Manicures: A Complete Guide to Gel Nails

two pairs of hands black white

 Olive & June

Looking for a manicure that will last through vacation, busy work weeks, and days filled with hands-on projects? It’s time to consider getting a gel manicure. But before you do, there are a few (okay, more than a dozen) things you should know first. To help you polish up on all things gels, keep scrolling for some expert tips on getting and maintaining gel manis.

Meet the Expert

  • Sarah Gibson Tuttle, CEO, and founder of Olive & June
  • Evelyn Lim, Paintbox chief educator
  • Anastasia Totty, LeChat Nails educator and professional gel nail artist

What Is a Gel Manicure?

A gel manicure follows most of the same steps as your traditional manicure—your nails are cut, filed, and shaped, cuticles are cut (if you so choose), but that's where the similarities end.

Gel nail polish is painted on similarly to classic lacquer. However, it is cured with a UV or LED light to help lock it in place for long-lasting wear. Each coat of gel polish will need to be cured for about 30 to 60 seconds at a time. And instead of waiting for your nails to dry, you're ready to leave the salon as soon as your last topcoat cures. And as a bonus, “Gel manicures are more resistant to chips and wear and tear,” says Gibson Tuttle. “They also stay glossy for the duration of the manicure.”

How Long Do Gel Manicures Last?

closeup of nude gel manicure

 Olive & June

Thanks to the curing process, gel manicures typically last anywhere from 10 days and up to three weeks. Totty says, "Gel manicures are designed to last around three weeks. Because of natural nail growth and wear and tear, anything beyond that usually does not look great. There are ways to improve wear with strengthening base gels like LeChat Liquid Gel Builder ($18) that will make your gels last longer."

And while gel polish alone is known for lasting longer than traditional lacquer, how it’s painted on plays a big role. When applying gel polish (or any polish for that matter), you want to make sure that your nail beds are as dry as possible. That doesn’t mean brittle—instead, there shouldn’t be any water, lotion, or oils on your nail plates, as the presence of such could prevent your gel polish from latching on. 

As with any mani, chips and broken nails are still a possibility with gels; they’re just not as likely. If you do chip or break a gel, it helps to have a nail file on hand at all times. “File it to a shape you love and leave it be if you can,” Gibson Tuttle recommends. “If it’s obvious and you can’t return to the salon immediately, we recommend finding a similar polish to cover up any gaps in the color.”

How Much Does It Cost?

The cost of a gel manicure varies widely between cities, states, and nail techs. In major cities like LA and New York City, a gel manicure can cost anywhere from $30 to $50+. In general, expect gel polish to cost about $10 to $15 more than your regular manicure. Keep in mind that you'll also have to pay for gel removal (anywhere from $5-$15 depending on location) if you decide you don't want to take it off at home.

Are Gel Manicures Safe?

Person's hands painted with pale blue fingernails on an off-white background.
 Olive & June

UV lights automatically come with the assumption of scary side effects (hello, dark spots and wrinkles, not to mention, in extreme—very unlikely cases—cancer), so some brands have switched over to LED curing, thanks to their lower levels of UV rays. Totty says, "Over the last couple of years, gel manicures have become the most popular service in any salon. There has been ample research regarding damage to skin and nails; the traditional UV lamps used for curing these products have different bulbs than traditional ‘tanning beds,’ and most nail brands are switching to LED lamps simply because they cure the product in 30 seconds compared to two to three minutes using a UV lamp."

On the other hand, if you love your UV lamp for drying, Gibson Tuttle recommends applying sunscreen beforehand—just in case.

As with most nail polishes, some gels are made with better ingredients than others. While it’s hard for gel polishes to be completely clean, the biggest (read: worst) ingredients you want to keep an eye out for are dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde, and toluene. These ingredients are not only toxic, but some are even carcinogenic. So, if you’re mindful about shopping clean, this is something you certainly want to be aware of.

Can Gel Manicures Damage Your Nails?

closeup of person painting nails

Emmanuel Faure / Getty Images

Say you notice that your gel polish is chipped. As annoying as that might be, you should never (and we mean never) pick off the rest. "Gel manicures don’t damage nails; what can be damaging is a poor removal process such as peeling it off the nail," Totty says.

“The biggest disadvantage to gel manicures is improper removal,” Gibson Tuttle shares. “You can avoid this by properly (and patiently) removing the polish yourself at home or seeking manicurists who take their time in removal to protect your nails.”

Even when you follow every protocol for healthy gel removal, there’s a chance that your nail plates could come out looking and feeling damaged. If peeling nails is your reality, Gibson Tuttle says it's best to skip gels for a while and allow the nail to grow out. “Applying daily cuticle oil is a must to help your nails grow strong,” she adds.

How to Safely Remove a Gel Manicure

Black nail file on white background.
Tropical Shine Black Cushion Nail File Coarse 100/180 $2
Shop

“Gel is a very general term, so you should always ask your tech what type of gel they are applying and how to remove it,” Lim explains. For example, she shares that soft gels should be buffed and soaked off; Japanese gels and SNS dip powder (commonly confused with gels) should be filed down with an electronic file (or e-file); hard gels should be filed off completely before soaking, and all other gels and traditional polishes can be soaked off without any buffing.

“With products constantly coming into the market, no one procedure fits all,” Lim says. As such, she reiterates how important it is to know what’s on your nails, if not for your own sake, for the manicurist who removes it. 

As a general rule of thumb, if soaking your nails in acetone isn’t cutting it, it’s time to take a file to your nail plates. Ever so gently (seriously—no harsh scraping), file off the topmost shiny layer of nail polish. This is important to allow the acetone to penetrate to the deepest layer and speed up your removal process,” Lim explains.

If you don’t have an e-file on hand, Lim says the best tool for removing gel polish is a 100/180 grit file—something you can find at most drugstores. “You should only use the 180 side when removing the shine, but you may need to use the 100 side to break down multiple layers of topcoat, builder gel, or nail art,” she instructs.

As much as you may want the gel removal process to go as quickly as possible, it’s best to take your time if you want to keep the health of your nails intact. With that in mind, Gibson Tuttle has a go-to removal process. 

“First, file a bit to break the topcoat seal,” she says. “Then, place cotton balls soaked in acetone on your nails and wrap your fingertips in tin foil.” Let them sit for 10 minutes before attempting to remove the polish. To speed up the process, Gibson Tuttle says you can try wrapping a hot towel around your fingers while they’re wrapped in foil. 

Uncapped pale pink Olive & June Cuticle Serum pen on off-white background.
Olive & June Cuticle Serum $30
Shop

According to all three experts, a cuticle oil or serum is your BFF post-gel mani. “Your nails will be on the brittle side due to the removal solution, so it is important to rehydrate your nail,” Lim says. She notes, however, that if you’re going directly from one mani to the next, it’s best to avoid cuticle oil, as it may cause lifting.

Related Stories