13 Things You Need to Know Before Getting a Gel Manicure

Updated 07/17/19
Product Disclosure

 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 ought to know first. To help you polish up on all things gels, ahead you’ll find 13 tips to keep in mind when preparing for and recovering from the fan-favorite nail technique.

Gel Manicures Are Cured With a UV or LED Light

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. Since 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), some brands have switched over to LED curing thanks to their lower levels of UV rays. Some gel brands that use LED lights include CND, OPI, Red Carpet Manicure, and more. If you feel more comfortable with the prospect of LED lights, be sure to ask your salon if they offer them before booking an appointment.

On the other hand, if you love your UV lamp for drying, Olive & June CEO and founder Sarah Gibson Tuttle recommends applying sunscreen beforehand—just in case.

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

Some Gel Polishes Are Cleaner Than Others

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.

Gel Manicures Last Longer Than Classic Manicures

Thanks to the curing process, gel manicures typically last anywhere from 10 days to two weeks. “Gel manicures are more resistant to chips and wear and tear,” Gibson Tuttle says. “They also stay glossy for the duration of the manicure.”

The Way You Prep Your Nails Plays Into How Long They’ll Last

While gel polish alone is known for lasting longer than traditional lacquer, the way in which 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—rather, 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. 

Close-up photo of person with shiny red nails and bright white sneakers.
Olive & June

Gel Manicures Can Still Chip and Break

As with any mani, chips and broken nails are still a possibility with gels, they’re just not as likely. If, however, 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.”

Under No Circumstances Whatsoever Should You Peel a Gel Manicure

Say you do notice that your gel polish is chipped. As annoying as that might be, you should never (and we mean never) pick off the rest. “Picking your gels off hurts your nails and can prevent future polish and/or gel from sticking,” Gibson Tuttle points out, noting that it can weaken the nail plate overall in the process. 

The Most Damaging Part About Gel Manicures Is Removal

“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.”

If you’re unsure what proper DIY removal entails, read on for six more tips to help with the process. 

Pale pink bottle of Olive & June Nail Polish Remover on off-white background.
Olive & June

Different Gels Call for Different Removal

“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,” Paintbox chief educator Evelyn 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. 

If Your Gels Won’t Budge, Give Them a Buff

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.

The Nail File You Use Matters for Gel Removal

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 top coat, builder gel, or nail art,” she instructs.

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

Take Your Time With Removal

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. 

Always Finish the Removal Process with Cuticle Oil or Serum

According to Gibson Tuttle and Lim, 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.

Uncapped pale pink Olive & June Cuticle Serum pen on off-white background.
Olive & June Cuticle Serum $16
Shop

If Your Nails Are Damaged, Take a Break From Gels

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.

Next, check out the rainbow nail art designs that are popping up everywhere in 2019. You might just want to get them done in gel.

Related Stories