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hand with manicure nails in gel polish lamp
Credit: Galina Kiseleva/Real Simple

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Reader question: Are gel manicures actually bad for my nails? Should I be taking a break in between? —Rita Watson

I'm a serial gel manicure wearer. As someone who is very hands-on in her lifestyle, the promise of a chip-free, virtually indestructible manicure is enticing—and highly addictive.

My back-to-back gel manicure appointments came to a temporary halt when I realized that my nail beds were becoming extremely thin and brittle. Although I initially assumed that this was from the polish itself, the true culprit was my careless removal process. Gel polish requires a lot of effort and time commitment to remove—usually involving soaking nails in acetone—and I'd gotten lazy, sometimes peeling them off. (FYI, this is the most egregious nail sin.)

When I started getting my gel nails properly removed at a salon on a regular basis, my nail health recovered—and today they're stronger than ever. In fact, dare I say, they're longer and overall healthier than my pre-gel days. 

But don't just take it from me. I talked to a handful of nail experts to back up my observation.

Are gel manicures harmful?

Short answer: Depends. Modern gel polish formulas alone (their chemical compositions, that is) are virtually harmless. "Suggestions to let your nails 'breathe' once in a while between manicure services of all types is a myth that's been floating around since the birth of extension services," says Heather Reynosa, OPI Global education design director. "It's important to note that semi-permanent enhancement products—like gel polish—do not harm your nails. In fact, it can help to protect your natural nails from environmental elements." 

So why does nail health so often suffer from gel manicures? Reynosa notes that damage that occurs with these services are mainly mechanical, which happens in a few ways. "Roughing up the nail with files not meant for natural nails prior to application, forcefully scraping off product during removal instead of allowing it to release, aggressive filing again after removal, and picking and peeling off the gel polish can all cause damage," she says.

And one more thing—never leave a gel manicure on for longer than two to three weeks, even if it still looks intact. "The biggest risk to leaving a gel manicure service on for longer than three weeks is that the extra weight can start pulling on the edge of your nail, causing tears in the base of your nails," says Reynosa. "They can then lift, which peels back keratin layers and causes more mechanical damage. The longer you wear the gel polish manicure past two to three weeks, the more difficult it is to remove, making the likelihood of forceful scraping and peeling much higher."

How to remove gel polish safely

It's essential that your gel polish is removed with extra care to prevent damage, so take a moment to scope out the salon you're going to. "If you catch your service provider prying off your manicure products by force, aka using a tip or other tool to slide under the acrylic or gel and 'peel' it off, ask the provider to stop," says Reynosa. "If they don't, leave."

Another red flag? Not filing down the polish first. "Acrylic or sculpting gel removal needs to be pre-filed to remove the bulk of the product to get to a layer similar to the thickness of a gel polish coating," says Reynosa.

The correct way to remove gel includes the use of 100 percent acetone, says Jin Soon Choi, celebrity manicurist and founder of JINsoon Spas and JINsoon Nail Lacquer. "Proper removal happens when the remover wraps (i.e., foil or cotton) are allowed to stay on for the appropriate amount of time (usually 10 to 15 minutes) and the remover fully penetrates the coating, allowing it to flake away easily with a light touch and a plastic cuticle pusher," adds Shelena Robinson, OPI global education manager.

When to take a break from gel manicures

According to Choi, signs that your nails need a break from polish include chipping and peeling nail beds, ragged cuticles, thinning of the nails, dryness, and white spots. If you are experiencing any of these signs, it may be a good time to take a break from gels for a while.

As for the length of time, it depends on the extent of damage done and how fast your nails grow. Nail beds can't be made "thicker," so your best bet is keeping them as hydrated as possible and waiting for the damage to grow out. As a starting point, Choi recommends taking a break from gel for at least two weeks to a month to start seeing a real difference. "For painful, more intense damage from repeated picking and peeling, it can take anywhere from four to eight weeks to grow the nails back out," says Reynosa. 

To accelerate the waiting period, applying a good cuticle oil is key. "If your nails have gotten too dry and the splitting/peeling is really obvious, cut them down and keep applying cuticle oil on bare nails for a week or so—they should bounce back quickly and be polish-ready after that," says Reynosa.