Gel nails use special polish that is “photocured” with a UV or light-emitting diode (LED) lamp. Over time, repeated gel manicures can damage nails, and some people are sensitive to the chemicals in gel polish.

Gel nails typically last longer than traditional nail polish, which can be a major plus for some people. They also “dry” instantly after curing, so people do not need to worry about smudging their polish.

However, over time, gel manicures can be harmful. Some people experience brittle, thin nails that split, while others may experience reactions to the harsh chemicals.

Read more to learn about gel nail safety, how to remove them, and tips to keep nails healthy and strong.

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Gel nail polishes are durable, glossy, and chip-resistant.

However, gel polish can be harsh on nails. It has the potential to cause damage, especially if people use it often.

According to a large survey of 2,118 people who used gel nails, some individuals experienced itchiness, swelling, and burning during application. Nail damage was more likely to occur during the removal process — participants reported weakened nails, splitting, white spots, grooves, and changes to the nail plate.

A 2020 study examined the effects of prolonged exposure to UV light and gel polish.

It found a link to pterygium inversum unguis (PIU). This condition causes the hyponychium — the area where the fingertip meets the nail — to attach to the nail plate. In most cases, the condition resolved within a few weeks of switching from gel to standard nail polish.

Interestingly, at-home gel polish kits may pose a higher risk than professional salon manicures. The products in home kits are not tightly regulated, and people do not have the proper training to apply them safely.

People using at-home nail kits often have longer periods of contact with irritants in nail products.

The most common side effect is painful, itchy eczematous dermatitis. Additional reactions include detached nails, or onycholysis, lesions under the nail plate, and weak, brittle nails.

Gel nail polish contains various chemicals, and some may cause adverse effects.

Research from 2018 and 2021 found that gel nail polish contains methacrylates and acrylates. These can cause skin irritation, such as hives and contact dermatitis.

One common concern with gel manicures is exposure to UV rays. However, the risk of skin cancer or premature aging is low due to the short exposure time.

A 2020 review agreed, stating UV gel manicures pose little to no cancer risk to young adults.

Despite this, current research is limited, and there is no harm in taking safety precautions. Experts recommend wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen during gel manicures or pedicures. People can also wear open gloves or socks to protect their skin.

Gel nails usually last 2–3 weeks.

While people can safely have gel nails every few weeks, dermatologists recommend keeping the nails bare for at least 1–2 weeks in between manicures. This helps to strengthen, repair, and rehydrate the nails.

It also gives people an opportunity to check their nails for abnormalities, such as cracks, spots, and discoloration.

Learn more about nail health here.

It is best for a person to visit a professional for the safe removal of gel nails. The removal process is the most common time to experience nail damage, so it is important for nail health to do this correctly.

The removal process involves soaking the fingertips in acetone for around 15 minutes. Another option is to wrap aluminum foil around acetone-soaked cotton balls on the fingertips.

Following removal, individuals should wash their hands thoroughly and moisturize the nails, cuticles, and hands. If possible, people may opt for a hydrating paraffin wax treatment.

There are several ways to maintain shiny, smooth, and strong nails. To improve and maintain nail health, people should consider:

  • cleaning nails regularly
  • trimming nails straight across
  • filing nails to create round edges
  • keeping nails short to reduce the accumulation of dirt and bacteria
  • avoiding filing or buffing the nail surface
  • eating a balanced, nutritious diet
  • wearing gloves when washing dishes
  • using a nail and cuticle moisturizer
  • avoiding picking or biting nails and cuticles
  • refraining from cutting or pushing the cuticles
  • trimming hangnails carefully

Read more about 13 tips to strengthen nails.

People who prefer alternatives to gel nails have several options, some of which are less damaging. Gel nail alternatives include:

  • standard manicure using regular nail polish
  • home manicure using nontoxic nail polish
  • shellac manicure
  • dip powder manicure
  • gel nail extensions
  • silk wrap nails
  • press-on nails
  • nail stickers

Gel nails are durable, long lasting, and scratch-resistant. However, the chemicals and removal process can be damaging for some people.

People should have gel polish professionally removed, and they may want to take breaks between manicures.