The Truth About Gel and Acrylic Nails

Beauty & Style | 10/14/2015 | 05:25 PM EDT

Are We Taking the Fake Nail Scare Too Seriously?

The manicure. It’s a beauty obsession many women will never, ever give up. Whether done in the privacy of their home or pampered at a nearby favorite salon, the manicure is the woman’s 20th century accessory.

But, it’s also a fleeting, short lived accessorized high that can feel like money going down the drain. Yes, we love the look of a fresh pair of shapely nails coated in the latest seasonal color by Essie. But, what we don’t like is the potential next-day chip that may come and screw up our manicures, all because we have to still live our lives like normal people. And of course, ish’ happens.

Because women all over have this love-hate relationship with the idea of painted nails being their easy (and affordable) way of showing their individuality, many of us go the nail overlay route. The hope? That upgrading our basic manicures to gel or acrylic services will sustain our chicly primped digits.

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The love of acrylic and now, gel nails has surpassed our wildest dreams. Women, more and more, have ish’ to do. We have things to get done, emails to send, and meetings to attend. And we want to do them looking good. There’s nothing worst than going for a formal handshake and feeling ashamed of your less than manicured nails. So, we’ve resorted to investing in the gel nail obsession or sticking with the age-old acrylic applications.

But, as studies zoom in on our manicure obsession, they reveal shocking and sometimes sad news about our favorite nail services: the gel and acrylic manicures.

So, what is the truth about gel and acrylic overlays? Are they really that bad for us? Is one better than the other?

Here goes.

Let’s talk about Gel nails

First things first, what are gel nails? They’re basically nail overlays that are made up of a gel produce that is cured under an UV (ultraviolet) or LED (light emitting diode) light. You can kind of think of the gel mixture as a pre-mixed acrylic.

The polish is noted to last for two solid weeks, preventing chipping and peeling. The odor is very faint compared to that of the acrylic powder and liquid used. This is mostly due to the fact that gel products have a lack of VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

How are gel nails applied?

In short, the process of applying gel nails is relatively simple. You first prep the nail by buffing the shine off of the nail, creating a base for adherence. From there, your nails are cleaned and air-dried for 15-30 seconds. Then you’ll have one layer of a gel primer applied, followed by a gel base and then top coat, making sure your skin is untouched. Next, you’ll have your nails placed under a LED lamp for 30 seconds. Then, you’ll have the gel color added. One layer is laced on your nails, and then you’re under the LED lamp for 60 seconds, followed by another layer of color and an additional 60 second LED lamp curing time.

After this, another topcoat is applied and you’ll go back under the LED light for 30 seconds. Lastly, you’ll have any moisture removed with a gel cleanser and lint-free wipe. Voila, you’re gel mani is done.

While most women claim to prefer gel nails to acrylics (usually due to the lack of strong odor and vapors that you inhale during an acrylic set), there have been some experts commenting negatively on the gel nail process and how it can affect women’s health.

For starters, the UV lights used at some salons are not highly favored amongst some dermatologists and even beauty experts, wondering if the exposure could cause skin cancer. However, a study done by Lighting Science, published by Doug Schoon (from nail brand CND), Paul Bryson (from nail brand OPI) and Jim McConnell (from nail brand Light Elegance), showed that the exposure we get from UV lamps is equivalent to “spending about 17 to 26 seconds in sunlight each day of the two weeks in between nail appointments.” While we understand from former reported issues with commercial tanning beds that exposure to UV lights aren’t that great for our skin, the exposure you get via a gel manicure doesn’t really seem to be that bad. However, we really don’t know for sure and time will (unfortunately) only tell the true effects of the gel manicure trend, which first appeared in the United States in the 80s.

Now, what about acrylic nails?

Unlike the gel nail mixture, acrylics are a powder and liquid mixture that hardens when exposed to air. The odor can be extremely strong (and some even say harmful), especially if the salon you’re in has poor ventilation. Acrylics can be applied directly on your nail beds, or to nails with added tips, just like gel nails.

How are acrylic nails applied?

Similar to the gel process, the nails are buffed down so that the mixture can adhere to your nail bed. While this first process is known to make your nails weak and brittle, it’s inevitable with both the gel and acrylic set.

The cuticles are pushed back and a nail primer (made with meth acrylic acid) is applied. From there, the acrylic brush is dipped into the liquid substance and then into the powder substance. Then, the now gel-like formula is brushed onto your nails, gently. Excess is removed and the mixture is smoothed out on your nail. Afterwards, your acrylic is allowed to dry and be shaped. From there, your polish of choice is applied.

Acrylics are cheaper than gels, but they both serve as ways to protect your nails from chipping and breaking. You are usually directed to get a refill every 2-3 weeks.

Now, this sounds pretty good, right? Of course it does. Another way to create long lasting manicures: who wouldn’t want that?

Here’s the kicker: many experts believe that the chemicals emitted from the powder are harmful when inhaled by customers. Some say that if proper ventilation is accessible throughout the salon, customers getting the acrylic service should be fine. But, many other experts have gone to say that the FDA banned chemical MMA or methacrylate that is still found in some acrylic solutions can cause respiratory, eye and even skin problems.

So, what is a woman with a love for gel or acrylic manicures to do?

At the end of the day, there are pros and cons to both services. Your best bet in protecting your nails and your health is to research as much as possible on the nail trend you are seeking to try out, and make the best decision for you. In addition to that, always look to spend your money in salons that are clean and have proper ventilation. Stick with salons that use new tools for each customer (and ones that let you take your tools packet home to reuse when you return. All in all, you must do your part to make sure that you’re investing your time and money into a business that ensures safety and cares about health regulations. Because no manicure is worth you have faulty health. 

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