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The Ultimate Guide to Gel Nails, in the Salon and at Home

Photo by Serhii Sobolevskyi/Getty Images

How many times have you complimented a friend’s nail color, only to learn it’s gel? Gel manicures exploded in popularity several years ago, and many of us haven’t looked back. But there are also a lot of mixed messages floating around about what they are and their safety. But friends don’t let friends leave the nail salon with a wet manicure (or pedicure), so we’re here to explain everything you need to know about gels, with the help of Rachel Apfel Glass, founder of Glosslab in New York City. Plus, stick around for some polish recommendations if you want all the perks of a gel manicure without leaving your couch.

About the Expert:

Rachel Apfel Glass is the founder of Glosslab, a membership-based manicure studio in New York City.

What are gel nails?

If you haven’t had a gel mani before, it will begin like a regular manicure: You have the nail shaped and filed, the cuticles trimmed, and any old polish removed. The polish is then painted on, but unlike regular manicures, gel polish requires no dry time, thanks to the use of a UV or LED lamp which “cures” the base coat, polish, and top coat for up to 60 seconds each. Often, a UV light is used, which has raised concerns about potential skin damage with prolonged use. At Glosslab, however, “We use an LED light to cure the polish as it’s applied to maintain the polish longer,” says Glass.

In addition to saving serious time by drying the nails in seconds, the curing process makes gel manicures chip-resistant. The manicure also looks ultra-glossy, and remains that way as long as the manicure is intact. Nail art can also be done using gel polish, and typically requires a curing step between each step to dry the polish.

How long do gel nails last?

In addition to the glossy shine, one of the reasons gel is so popular is how long it lasts without chipping. “Gel polish typically lasts 10-14+ days,” says Glass. To keep a gel manicure in tip-top shape as long as possible, the expert advises staying hydrated, and applying coconut oil to moisturize the nails and cuticles. “I also recommend keeping nails short, as you'll be less likely to break them,” says Glass.

Will a gel manicure damage your nails?

You may have heard that gel manicures can damage your nails or nail beds—and, unfortunately, that’s not entirely fiction. “We find that most damage from gel polish is due to the gel polish not being removed properly,” says Glass. There is a correct removal process, which includes using a nail file to remove the top layer of the gel, soaking cotton balls in acetone nail polish remover, and wrapping fingers in foil to break down the polish. You can also pick up a kit specifically made for gel removal. “Our GLOSSLAB Gel Erase Kit ‘bursts’ the gel polish on nails so that no scraping—a.k.a. damage—happens to the nails,” says the Glass. She adds that getting too many gel manicures in a row can also take its toll. “I also recommend taking a break from gel polish. I love gel polish for vacations or when I can’t get to the salon as frequently, but it’s great to do gel no more than once per month,” says Glass.

What’s the difference between gel nails and acrylic nails?

Gel extensions are another incarnation of the gel manicure, and are often confused with acrylic nails. Gel extensions are pre-shaped nail extensions made using a builder gel that are adhered onto the nail tips, while acrylics are made from a polymer powder and liquid monomer and shaped directly on the natural nail to form a faux tip. Because of their long length, gel extensions can look very similar to acrylics, but they’re made entirely out of gel, and are generally considered less damaging to the nail.

The best at-home gel polishes:

With the popularity of gel manicures at the salon, many nail brands are finding ways to get the look at home. And while you can get your own gel nail kit, complete with gel polishes and a nail lamp, they’ve also developed formulas that look and last like gel but can be applied like normal polishes. Better yet, can also be removed with regular nail polish remover. Here are a few of our favorites for a long-lasting, salon-quality mani at home.

1. ESSIE Gel Couture Nail Polish 

ESSIE Gel Couture Nail Polish
Courtesy of ESSIE

Essie’s beloved nail lacquers were already a favorite of manicurists and DIY-ers alike, and their range of gel-like shades is somehow even shinier and more long-lasting.

2. DEBORAH LIPPMAN Gel Lab Pro Color Nail Polish

DEBORAH LIPPMAN Gel Lab Pro Color Nail Polish

These pro-loved polishes come in unique shades (with great shimmer and glitter options!), and are infused with strengthening ingredients like biotin, keratin, and green tea extract.

3. NAILS.INC Gel Effect Nail Polish

NAILS.INC Gel Effect Nail Polish
Courtesy of NAILS.INC

You’ll never need more than two coats with these super-opaque polishes, and the wide brush ensures you’ll easily reach every spot on your nail.

4. SALLY HANSEN Miracle Gel Nail Polish

SALLY HANSEN Miracle Gel Nail Polish
Courtesy of SALLY HANSEN

If you’re on the hunt for a chip-free, gel-like polish under $10, this is the one to beat. And with 90+ polish colors in the collection, you’re all but guaranteed to find your dream shade.

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About the author
Lindy Segal
Lindy is a contributor at IPSY, a beauty and lifestyle writer, and Real Housewives aficionado. She was an editor at People and Glamour, and her freelance work has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Who What Wear, and Cosmopolitan, among other publications.
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Article Last Updated August 30, 2021 12:00 AM