Concerns around gel manicures have been hitting the headlines. We asked the experts how to play it safe.

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With high shine, minimal drying time and no chips, it's no surprise that gel manicures have become a fortnightly fixture for many. According to beauty appointment app Treatwell, gel nails are now the most popular treatment in the UK. But the practice has attracted a slew of negative headlines recently, after The Sunday Times reported that dermatologists are seeing an increase in patients suffering from allergic reactions to gels. This is often caused by mis-timed ‘curing’ of the polish under the UV light. If not properly set, acrylates – the chemicals that bond the gel – can penetrate the nail bed and surrounding skin. 

This can have huge health implications down the line,  according to BBC News, some allergy sufferers are then unable to have medical treatments that involve acrylates, such as some dentistry and surgeries. The rising use of at-home gel manicure kits is thought to be part of the problem. A government watchdog – the Office for Product Safety and Standards is now investigating.

So where does all this leave gel fanatics? How do you keep your nails healthy and yourself safe? Well, there's no need to panic. First things first, we'd always advise that you go to a  reputable salon rather than attempt to DIY - leave those tricksy UV lights to the professionals.

And don't be tempted to eke out the time between appointments. Fungal infections can arise if you leave gels on for longer than two to three weeks. “Leaving your gels on for too long can cause the gel to lift, and moisture could get underneath the nail, creating the perfect ground for bacteria to grow and cause ‘green nail’ [an infection of the nails that leads to a greenish discoloration of nails],” says nail expert Leighton Denny.

We asked Denny and two other top nail experts for more tips on how to get a safe gel manicure that will keep your nails as healthy as possible.

1. Book in for the real thing

There are many reputable gel manicure brands, so make sure your technician is using one that you've heard of. “The term ‘Shellac’ [a brand name] has become a bit of a generic term. Many salons say they are providing a ‘Shellac’ but aren't,” says fashion and celebrity manicurist, Marian Newman

“There are also a lot of rip offs. Genuine products have very specific instructions for application and removal.” How do you know which ones to opt for? “Whichever system the technician is using, it should be a complete system," says Newman. "This means the nail preparation, the products - base coat, colour and top coat - plus, and most importantly, the UV lamp should all be from the same brand. This is crucial to effective service.” 

Leighton Denny told us that the UV lamp is specifically designed and fitted with a timer  to cure its same-brand gel polish. You could end up with nails that are not properly cured if the lamp is from another system.

2. Use a nail oil or cuticle oil first

“Any type of gel polish is most successful on healthy nails,” says Marian. “Using a good nail oil before and during is the best way to look after natural nails.” Marian recommends CND Solar Oil, £6.95, but we also love Nails Inc Superfood Repair Oil, £12.

3. Check your nail technician’s credentials

“A nail professional that has actually completed a specific training course will be proud to display their certificate,” says Newman. “A genuine nail pro will also do their best to educate their client by explaining what they are doing and the reasons. They will also put a great emphasis on home care.”

4. Protect your hands

There are concerns about the impact of UV lamps on nails and the skin on hands, with one recent study suggesting blasts of ultraviolet light could cause DNA damage and cell mutations the same as those found in skin cancer sufferers. If you’re having frequent gel manicures then you may want to invest in a pair of fingerless manicure gloves such as the UV Glove Gel Manicure Gloves, £9.99 for three. 

Celebrity nail technician Michelle Class advises applying some SPF before your appointment, “Research shows that during a normal gel manicure, your hands are in the lamp for no more than ten minutes once or twice a month. The UV exposure is so low that the risk of getting melanoma is lower than being in natural sunlight. But regardless of this, we should all be wearing sunscreen all year round to protect our skin from UV rays and I apply SPF to my skin and hands daily." 

Michelle's SPF of choice is ultra-hydrating Ultra Violette Extreme Screen Hydrating Body and Hand Skinscreen SPF50, £27. We also love Garnier Ambre Solaire Anti-Age Super UV SPF50, £12. 

5. Correct removal should mean no damage

All our experts agree that incorrect removal is the biggest cause of damage to nails with a gel manicure. Firstly, repeat after me: do not pick it off. ”You must not pick or remove your gel mani yourself – this is what causes peeling, splitting and nail damage. Always have your gels removed by a professional,” says Denny. He recommends booking in your removal at the same time as booking in your next appointment.

And when you’re in the salon, the removal should be fairly speedy. “It should be very fast and, most important of all, no tool should be used after the wrap has been removed,” says Newman.  If your technician gets a file out to remove any polish, step away. “If any tool is used to remove any remaining product then there is a very high incidence of damage. This is the most common cause of nail damage and there is no need for it. If any product is still on the nail, then a cotton pad soaked in remover should be used just like polish removal.”

6. Take a break on occasion (but only if you want to)

.“Gel manicures shouldn’t damage your nails or affect your nail health if you’re having them applied and removed by a reputable professional. It’s also important to remove gel nails every two to three weeks. If you’re doing this then there isn’t a ‘maximum’ number of gel manicures you should limit yourself to.” 

However, having a complete break from gels is no bad thing, says Denny. “I would advise everyone to give their nails a break and nurture, strengthen and feed their nails the nutrients they need with a ‘nail facial’ every two months.”

7. Dehydrated nails are the biggest cause of damage

“The biggest culprit when it comes to nail damage is dehydration,” says Denny. “Resulting in dry, dull, brittle, weak nails that tend to snap, peel, break and flake easily.” His advice for getting nails back to their hydrated best?

  • Use the correct nail file. “Old or coarse emery boards can cause the nail to split, peel, flake and break if you attempt to file back and forth, damaging your nails further and making them weaker.” File in one direction, and use a new, fine file.
  • Moisturise. “You can never over moisturise nails. A simple tube of hand moisturiser and cuticle oil can do so much for your nail health – nourishing and hydrating your hands and nails and preventing dehydration and dryness further down the line. Always moisturise your hands after bathing or washing and incorporate a cuticle oil into your daily routine.”
  • Glove up. “Try to always wear rubber gloves when doing household chores to prevent excessive water and any other harsh chemicals from drying out your nails.”

Your nail hydration kit

Leighton Denny Large Crystal Nail File, £17.50

Bloom & Blossom Hand Up Age Defying Hand Cream, £18

Sally Hansen Vitamin E Nail & Cuticle Oil, £8.99 

And don’t forget your hands as well as your nails, now could be the perfect time to book in for a hand facial.