Hannah Frye


February 24, 2023

Hannah Frye

mbg Assistant Beauty Editor

By Hannah Frye

mbg Assistant Beauty Editor

Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more.

Woman Manicuring Her Nails in Multiple Colors

Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy

February 24, 2023

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There’s no right or wrong way to experiment with your nails. You should always put your passions, interests, and preferences before all else. However, some habits can be particularly damaging over time, so it’s important to know what you’re getting into. 

Today’s topic: Gel nails. While this ultra long-lasting manicure may be great for wearability, your nails may beg to differ. To come, nail experts explain how gel polish affects your nails, how to remove it properly, and what to do if you’re left with paper-thin tips. 


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Why gel nails can be bad for your health.

To keep it simple: Yes, your nails are better off on their own than with gel, but you probably already knew that. The reason this gel can be so damaging isn’t entirely related to the product itself, but also the process. Here’s what you should know: 


The application and removal process is harsh on the nail

“Most of the damage from soak-off gels is due to the removal process,” board-certified dermatologist and nail expert Dana Stern, M.D. tells mbg. This includes sanding the nail down before application and the acetone soak for removal. 

“A study out of Miami School of Medicine used ultrasound to demonstrate that gel manicures cause nail thinning1,” Stern notes. While it is unclear whether the polish or removal process was at fault, Stern notes that most experts align with the latter theory. 

Nail expert and owner of Brooklyn-based nail salon Lunula Tina Wang agrees: “Proper gel removal is often what makes the difference between maintaining or damaging nails,” she notes. 


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It dries out the nail. 

“You may not know it, but nails lose moisture faster than the rest of the skin around it,” Wang says. “And just like hair after too many treatments, nails can also become dry and brittle.”

The reason gel nails cause dryness is due to a couple different culprits, she says, including forcefully scraping off product during removal (instead of allowing it to release first), aggressive filing after removal, and picking and peeling off the gel polish.


UV lights cause DNA damage. 

Recent research found that radiation emitted by UV-nail polish dryers can alter and damage DNA2—however, it’s not clear if this is associated with skin cancers or other health risks. “At this point in time, it is difficult to quantify the risks of UVA exposure during repeated gel manicure sessions,” Stern says. There’s much variability with respect to types of lamps, exposure times, positioning of skin, skin types, etc. 

“We do know that repeated exposure to UVA from sunlight or tanning machines is mutagenic and can cause skin cancer, the question remains as to how much of a risk typical gel manicures pose2,” she adds—which means we need more studies to confirm the risk. 

But, we do know that UVA rays contribute to photoaging. “UVA rays penetrate the skin to a deeper depth than UVB rays and as a result are responsible for many of the changes in the skin known as photo-aging,” she says. This includes thinning and wrinkling of the skin, visible blood vessels, uneven skin tone, skin laxity, volume loss, hyperpigmentation (AKA dark spots), and hypopigmentation (AKA light spots). 

So if you must get a gel manicure, Stern recommends applying SPF 30 to your hands or wearing fingerless gloves before popping them undere the light. 


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It dries out the cuticle.

“Long acetone soaks can also cause dehydration of the cuticle,” Stern notes. “Dry cuticles can retract, lift and separate and lead to a compromise to the nail’s natural protective barrier,” she says. 

Of course you can replenish hydration via hand cream and cuticle oil after your manicure, but repeated exposure to potent acetone might take a toll over time regardless. 


It can be left on too long. 

When you think of the benefits of gel nails, you probably come across the fact that they last much longer than typical polish in most cases. However, that might not be a great thing for your nail health. 

“You should not leave a gel manicure on for longer than two to three weeks, even if it still looks intact,” Wang says. “The extra weight can start pulling on your nail, causing tears in the base of your nails,” she adds. 


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It can cause keratin granulation. 

“Additionally when gels are removed, superficial layers of nail cells can be inadvertently removed along with the gel and this can result in the formation of a keratin granulation,” Stern says. 

“Keratin granulations appear as white patches in the nail and can also occur when polish is left on too long and then removed,” she adds. So if you’ve seen white spots on your nails, it may be due to frequent gel manicures. 

How to remove gel nails at home.

If all of that has you convinced you should remove your gel ASAP, don’t move too quickly. The experts agree it’s always best practice to get your gel removed by a professional.

However, you can do it at home if you don’t have access to a nail tech—here’s how. 

  1. Grab a gritty file: Using a 100-grit nail file, gentle file the gel to remove the top layer of polish. This shouldn’t hit your actual nail, but rather stop right before. Make sure your movements are slow and prescise, so you’re not pulling the nail back and fourth.
  2. Dip a cotton ball in acetone: “Then apply a cotton ball soaked in remover to the nails, which should soften the gel,” Wang says.Try to place the cotton ball on the nail in a way that ensures the damp part is on the nail, and the dry part is on the cuticle, if possible.  
  3. Secure: “Then secure the cotton in place with foil,” she notes. This may be difficult to do on your own if you go for both hands at once, so ask a friend to help you out if need be. 
  4. Wait ten minutes, then file: “After about 10 minutes, the gel should flake off with the help of a nail file,” Wang says. But if it doesn’t, don’t trip—just wait a few more minutes. Doing this will be better for the health of your nail than ripping the gel off right away. Again, move the file slowly so you don’t put too much stress on your vulnerable nail. 
  5. Gently push the remaining gel off the nail if needed: Using a metal cuticle pusher, gentle push the rest of the gel off the nail if needed. If it won’t budge, try soaking that nail in the remover for another minute. Avoid aggressively scraping the nail. 
  6. Wash your hands: Right after your polish is all gone, wash your hands. You’ll want to get the acetone off your skin ASAP. 
  7. Hydrate your nails & cuticles: