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What is a Gel Manicure?

By Rachel Burkot
Updated May 21, 2024
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A gel manicure is a type of nail treatment in which a nail technician uses gel to bind synthetic fingernails to natural ones and color them. The gel can also be applied over natural nails like regular polish. Though gel nails are generally long-lasting and don't chip, people do have to take special care when removing them, and the application process may be associated with health problems.


During a gel manicure, a nail technician first cleans and shapes a person's natural nails and pushes the cuticles back. He or she then applies a base coat, which helps the fake nail or polish adhere better, and then applies several coats of polish to the nails. After each layer is painted on, the person getting the manicure puts his or her hands under a small Ultra Violet (UV) lamp for a few seconds or minutes to cure and harden it. The nail technician ends by applying a clear top coat to seal and protect the nails.

Gel nails can be painted any color, but many people choose to get clear ones for a natural look. The color generally lasts for a few weeks without significantly changing, but tanning beds can cause a slight yellowing. The gel itself is usually a soft white color, which can enhance the look of a person's fingernail tips.

Aftercare and Removal

Natural nails continue to grow under the fake ones, so a person has to get them filled in after two or three weeks. The process for a filling is similar to that for a regular gel manicure, with the manicurist filing and shaping the synthetic nails and removing and repainting the color so that it will look brighter and last longer. Some people choose just to get the color renewed, while others choose to get new gel to fill in the space where the nail has grown out, near the cuticle. Depending on a person’s lifestyle and length of nails, this treatment usually lasts for about a month.

When a person wants to remove the nails, he or she can either file them off or soak them off with acetone nail polish. Though some polishes are designed to soak off easily, people may need to scratch up the topcoat so that the acetone can get to the colored layers. It's best to hold cotton balls soaked in remover on the nails for a few minutes instead of soaking the entire finger in it, since this can damage the skin. Wearers should never try to peel or pry the nails off, since this can tear off their natural fingernails.

Pros and Cons

Many people prefer a gel manicure since it's odorless, has a realistic look and feel, and is usually long-lasting. Gel nails also don't need lift, polish, or backfills, and when removed properly, don't damage the nail like acrylic nails sometimes do. Additionally, the polish acts as a shield against anything that might weaken or damage the nails, such as moisture or other elements.

Despite this, these treatments tend to be more expensive than other types of manicures, and do have to be maintained to keep looking good. Like other fake nails, if they get caught on something they can tear a person's natural nails off, which is very painful and can lead to infections. Some people also have concerns about the exposure to UV light needed to cure the nails, since type of light can increase a person's chances of skin cancer. The time and level of exposure that would be needed to cause cancer is generally much greater than most people experience during manicures though. Dermatologists recommend that people apply sunscreen to their hands before getting a gel manicure to be safe, and to get these types of treatments in moderation.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon335553 — On May 21, 2013

I think the ladies that are complaining about their nails need to watch where they are going. Why would you allow someone to use an electric filer and brutalize your nails and then blame the product? Before going in there you need to know what to expect and then make your demands.

I'm going in for a gel treatment on Thursday and if it doesn't look right, then I'm not going to let them touch me. I don't know why so many women allow themselves to be mistreated when it comes to their nails. Ladies, if the manicure is dirt cheap, don't go there. Period!

By anon318764 — On Feb 08, 2013

I started getting gel over my natural nails again after a ten year break. My nails would break halfway down my nailbed, and that sealed my decision.

The person I go to now does it with an electric file, whereas my last tech did it manually with a file. Needless to say, the last couple of months they have been lifting near my cuticle, so I will request a manual file when I go for my next appointment. I cannot go for a full month between appointments, and three weeks is a stretch also. And they grow so quickly, I have to file them once a week to keep them manageable. But otherwise, I love them and have never had any other problems.

By anon271991 — On May 29, 2012

I used to bite my nails, but a gel nail manicure helped me to grow them. However, a repeat manicure only lasts one week as the nail chips and peels. Maybe because I opted for a french manicure -- I don't know.

Two of my nails look as if they have an infection. They are all lumpy and one is very sore. When the gel is removed, my nails look terrible and I don't know what I should do.

By anon256701 — On Mar 22, 2012

I just had my first gel manicure (OPI) in an Ulta store. The manicurist was very good, but the first color she applied was spotty and streaked. I requested to have them redone and she did so with a different color.

Everyone keeps talking about how shiny their nails are. Mine actually look dull. She applied an oil to my nails when she was done and now all the shine is completely gone. After spending 3.5 hours there, I do not think I will do this again. Again, it was not my manicurist, I just don't get this product. I want to put a clear coat on top just to make them shiny. They look very matte. I don't like them.

By anon169029 — On Apr 19, 2011

i think some people are confused. First above all, do not go anywhere that uses electric files, period. There is no need and they file too fast. The nail becomes too thin before they realize it and there is no saving that. If I go somewhere that uses those drill like files, I walk right back out. Salon/Spa care should not be industrialized.

Second, a gel manicure is not the same as the gel nails that people get. It is actually a soak off polish that doesn't harm your nail. I got one three weeks ago and they did not file my nail to get it to stick and I didn't get nails glued to my own. I will caution you to not peel the polish as the gel is strong enough to peel nails (as mine do anyway because of a vitamin issue) but they are not the ones to be lumped in the category of acrylic/gel/silk wrap nails. This can be done on your own nail and soaked off without damage. Also, FYI: they shouldn't be picking or filing the color off. It will soak off in due time. They just do that to get you out of the chair faster and get to another customer.

By anon167683 — On Apr 13, 2011

I had a gel powder (I am told it is still acrylic nail process) and have put vitamin e oil underneath on my natural nail and cuticle every day. Because the gel/acrylic products are non-porous, you can still nourish your natural nails underneath at around the cuticle.

I don't think the techs will tell you this but I think it will work and you also have to go to a tech that does not file your natural nails too low. I have had one refill and the tech was careful not to file the overlay into my natural nail.

By anon151674 — On Feb 11, 2011

I have had acrylic nails on for years and decided to give my nails a break. The reason I put them on in the first place was because I bit them and I could not seem to break the cycle. Acrylics did break the cycle and my nails looked lovely.

I now have the acrylics off and my nails are weak and fragile, but doing OK. I am using nailtiques no. 2 formula with a coat of Revlon's post trauma nail treatment polish color 970 which fills the nail and gives it a nice, thick, very natural polish. I love it.

If this did not work I was intending to get gel polish (OPI Axxium) over the top of my Revlon 970. Perhaps try it. it really looks natural and beautiful and gives a nice glow.

My nails look so lovely now but they are still fragile and will be until they grown out from the acrylics. You can't expect there to be no effects after having acrylics because they file your nail down with each infill. Another polish I use is Rimmel stronger which has a pretty little faint sparkle to it. If you have a problem with your nail, it disguises it very nicely while looking natural. I hope this is helpful to someone.

By anon151255 — On Feb 10, 2011

I just had my nails done yesterday with Gel UV. it was fine when I had them done but the whole day and night i was in pain. It felt like someone is putting pressure constantly on my fingers all day long. I couldn't sleep at night. don't know if it's normal or I should remove them asap. any advice?

By anon147830 — On Jan 30, 2011

I am here looking for advice as I had bio gel used on nice nails for a year and then stopped and now my nails are ruined. I have always had beautiful nails and now they are just terrible: breaking, cracking, splitting and thin as paper. It is almost a year since I stopped and still they are not better.

Don't do Biogel! It was done at a top salon with the best product.

By anon147335 — On Jan 29, 2011

I got my gel manicure last week, my nails look great, and no electric file was used on my nails. they were only filed very little by hand. it seemed like she just took a few, not more than four strokes, on each nail with the file. however I wash my hands a lot and i think that is why i have seen a little chipping on the edges but I got a french manicure, which makes any chipping look very noticeable.

By anon136529 — On Dec 22, 2010

What gel can I apply to my natural long nails to make them stronger?

By anon131607 — On Dec 03, 2010

My daughter and I tried a uv gel manicure last month and loved it. We went today to get redone and the manicurist didn't use any tools other then the cuticle remover to push of left over gel.

He placed dampened cotton swab with acetone on it on fingertips wrapped in aluminum foil let set for few seconds and removed. I didn't have any problems and I love the way they look. Will be getting it done again in a month.

It only cost thirty dollars for all including french tips where we live.

By anon128157 — On Nov 18, 2010

i had gels for a couple of months too, but had to take them off due to lack of money and problems with the manicurist.

i never had the possibility to grow my nails before, but since i took the gels off, my nails are looking very nice and healthy. and that's despite the fact that i had to take them off myself by filing.

By anon126450 — On Nov 12, 2010

I had strong, long, healthy nails and put on gel nails only to protect them from damage and have a french manicure that looked flawless for weeks to a month. The process to put gel on is the same everywhere.

I went to a high end place first and they looked great and when I got them re-done I noticed this line at the end that moved as the gel was slowly coming off. I got them removed today and my nails are thin and the line is still there. I had to cut my nails off because I was told they were thin and would break anyway.

I do not think it matters where you go. It's the product used and both places used high end gel not powder. The fact that a chemical is put on to extend, or in my case protect, only protects it from breakage not damage.

I didn't need the gel to grow or make my nails healthy and now I will never do gel nails again.

By anon126327 — On Nov 12, 2010

I've been using the OPI Axxium soak off system for the past two months. First time in years that my nails grew. However, after 7-10 days, they start to lift away. I do them every two weeks. The soak-off is pure torture for me and I keep swearing I'll never do this again.

Well, today I peeled everything off and my nails are OK but I am going to back to the good old weekly manicures for safety's sake. So, my nails will be back to their formerly crappy state. Eh, it's just nails.

By anon125770 — On Nov 10, 2010

My experienced manicurist suggested the gel nails, and I loved the look and the lasting effect. She soaked my nails in acetone to remove them. I had gel done a second time, same removal process, then went back to regular polish. Warning: My nails are horrible, spotty, very very weak, and I keep having to trim them short because they are not growing out any stronger.

I will never do gel again and am looking for any repair products that will help me get my nails back. I guess time is the main cure.

By anon125530 — On Nov 09, 2010

I also had gel nails last month. At first they looked nice, but when they were removed a few weeks later, my nails looked bad. I don't think I 'll do it again.

By anon121357 — On Oct 24, 2010

I had gel done on my nails for about three weeks now and I love it! It looks amazing and hasn't chipped at all, but my friend has had them on for a month and just the other day she decided to take it off by herself and her nails underneath still looked perfect. The nail polish actually just peeled right off.

Now for other people who say it doesn't work I'm sorry, but you just might be going to the wrong salon or your nails may be the problem, but I suggest gel nail polish if you like no chip.

I intend on getting gel polish again.

By anon111650 — On Sep 17, 2010

I used to only get regular manicures because of the fakeness of the other kinds and seeing all that goes into putting the others on, taking them off. (Even my manicurist says acrylic nails are not good for you.) Then gel manicures came along. She explained it to me and due to the naturalness of it, I decided to do it. I have had no problems. No motorized equipment is involved. Just a soak to get them off and a gentle scraping for any leftover residue. Never felt a thing.

The clear lasts one month, which is the same price as getting a manicure once every two weeks. And I can paint them if I want to during the month, changing the colors, since removal of the polish does not interfere with the gel nails. Bottom line, I have had no problems, no pain, and it is all about the manicurist doing it correctly.

By anon109120 — On Sep 06, 2010

I love my gel manicure. My manicurist did an excellent job. The process was nicely done. Not painful at all.

I had them done four days ago and they still look fresh. At my salon, they have nail color that is specifically designed for gel manicures. I have a light pink color on my nails. I was told that when I return, I would need to soak my nails in acetone to take the gel off. There was no mention of using an electric file. I plan to continue having gel manicures.

By anon103610 — On Aug 13, 2010

Gels and acrylics are both safe on nails. It is not the product that damages the natural nail but an inexperienced nail tech. The natural nail should only be lightly filed to remove shine.

Electric files should never be used on the natural nail unless with a buffer attachment or emery attachment. The use of an electric file should be done by an experienced tech only.

If your nails are damaged after removal of gels or acrylics it is because the gel or acrylic was removed improperly. Bottom line ladies: You get what you pay for. Quit going to cheesy "discount" salons and expecting the Ritz. Select a reputable salon that has a nail tech who has been in the business at least three years.

By anon101538 — On Aug 03, 2010

Today i heard the ultraviolet light the salons use to dry or set your gel nails causes cancer. True or false?

By anon92447 — On Jun 28, 2010

Are gel manicures really that bad? I have been told that they make your nails look great, and once they are removed your nails are not damaged and not only have grown, but are beautiful and are stronger. Please inform me.

By anon89412 — On Jun 10, 2010

I have been having gel nails applied for nearly two years now. A good technician will always file manually to remove old gel; they should never use an electric file.

It's a gentle process because they are only buffing off the gel, not your nail. Done properly and with good advice from a good technician, you shouldn't have any problems.

By anon81304 — On Apr 30, 2010

Not sure what kind of salon these people are using. If someone comes at you with a electric file tell them, no!

I've been getting gels for some time. I go to a salon that hand files only. My gels have only been soaked off, never filed off. A plastic cuticle pusher is the only thing they've ever used to work off any stubborn spots (few and far between).

Know your salon. My natural nails are longer and stronger than they've ever been. As long as you get a pale color the gel manicure will last about a month. A darker color will not look as nice when your nails start to grow since the contrast will be more intense.

Another great thing about gels? They dry instantly. Also, you can paint regular polish over them and then take it off with nail polish remover, since that won't effect the gels. This allows you to match an outfit without getting a whole new manicure.

By anon78538 — On Apr 19, 2010

I had a gel manicure at one salon where they simply shaped the natural nail, painted the protective gel on, cured it and hey presto - perfect, near permanent nails. When the gel was removed it was soaked off and the nails underneath were perfect.

Last week I tried a different salon and left feeling as if my nails had been brutalised! They filed the gel off with an electric file, cut all my nails back, slapped tips on and then applied a paste to my nails.

I hate the look of them and I'm sure my nails have been damaged.

In short - it's not the gel that ruins your nails but how they are applied and removed!

By anon78400 — On Apr 18, 2010

I had a gel manicure yesterday for the first and last time, as well. After the manicure, my fingertips ached for over 12 hours! It felt as though someone had cut through my fingers. They look OK but I wouldn't recommend getting nail polish on them. it makes them look fake.

By anon73883 — On Mar 29, 2010

I had a gel manicure just over a week ago and so far I love it. it still has a great shine and my nails are growing without splitting and breaking for the first time in years. I guess I'll see what happens when its time to fill in or remove but for now, my nails look better than ever.

By anon72798 — On Mar 24, 2010

I have to agree. I was sold on a gel manicure and had two recently, and never again.

The process of removal was pretty intense -- they used a tool to scrape any excess gel left behind that didn't come off during the "soaking" process.

My nails were "compromised" as the manicurist was filing down and buffing away, and if you all didn't realize, any buffing, filing over the nail causes the nail to thin - making the nail brittle, split and chip easily.

Yeah, it's pretty and all, but in the long run, you pay for it both monetarily and you end up with damaged nails.

By anon65646 — On Feb 15, 2010

I had a gel manicure and was told that my own nails would grow while the gels were in place. I kept them for just one month, but then decided not to continue as I had issues with contact lenses, time element and costs.

Except for the thumb nails, all of my nails are horribly damaged. They have all broken off, peeled down to the nub point and it has been almost a month with no improvement although I am using Rejuvacote and healing creams daily.

Women should be warned of the damage that will be done to the natural nails and how long it will take for them to return to normal health. Pretty high price to pay all around!

I think gels should be banned.

By anon58668 — On Jan 03, 2010

I just tried a gel manicure and am certain that continued processes will damage your nails. They still use the electric file before applying the gel and if they have to be filed off your nail will be damaged.

I am sticking with a regular manicure.

By anon35381 — On Jul 04, 2009

Unlike what the above description indicates, when gels are removed from nails, the nails are damaged and have to grow out just like any other damaged nail would.

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