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Beauty alert: No-chip gel manicures just got way healthier


gel manicures just got safer
Photo: Stocksy/Carey Shaw

Gel manicures—AKA the much appreciated, longer lasting nail polish service you can get at salons—revolutionized the nail industry when they launched in 2010.

Finally women could tap their keyboard, swing kettlebells, and open a clasp on their handbag without thinking about their polish chipping for about two weeks. Problem is, this serious perk always came with beauty baggage, like nail damage or contact with toxic ingredients.

But a major innovation in the nail industry is changing all that: new healthier gels are debuting at nail salons, and they’re free of the most controversial polish ingredients.

“All my skin care is organic. My husband is a whole animal butcher and we only eat grass-fed beef. I see a functional medicine doctor. But the one area where I’d let myself go is with my gel,” says Nina Werman, founder of New York City-based Valley Nails. “There are probably a lot of women like me [who love the convenience].” And even more who’ve embraced gels with total abandon.

“My eyes shot of out of my head like a cartoon character when I heard about a safer gel.”

Now, women don’t need to make unhealthy choices for a stylish, lasting mani. Nail polish brands used in salon gel services, like Bio Seaweed Gel and NCLA, have recently formulated 5- and 7-free gels, respectively—which can last up to 21 days without chipping, says NCLA. And non-toxic nail salons can’t wait to get their hands on them.

“My eyes shot of out of my head like a cartoon character when I heard about a safer gel,” says Werman, who recently introduced NCLA’s gel polishes into Valley’s services this summer. “Everyone should know about this and get this, I thought!”

Ruth Kallens, founder of Van Court, a new, non-toxic nail salon in New York City’s Financial District, had avoided offering gels (because of their damage to the nail beds) as well as acrylics (which are essentially nail extensions made from a liquid powder) because of their unhealthy side. Acrylics, for example, contain MMA, a bonding ingredient that’s been linked to cancer.

But finding Bio Seaweed Gel for luxe manicures, she’s happily changed tune, added them to the menu this fall, and expects her Wall Street customers to flip for them.

nail gels
Photo: Stocksy/Lumina

The controversy over gel manicures

“Everyone wants their polish to last longer,” confirms Werman, and millions of women have gotten gels with abandon for this reason. “But many others have been afraid to try them or don’t want to do it with any kind of regularity,” says Werman, including the salon owner herself.

Gels transformed the nail industry, but they’ve come with beauty baggage.

A top reason for that hesitancy? The ingredients, many of which have known health risks. “Lots of nail gels are formulated with formaldehyde, camphor, formaldehyde resin, BPA, toluene, and other hardeners we just don’t find necessary,” says Brittany Jones, national sales manager at NCLA.

Most regular nail lacquer brands would agree with her, as polishes free of these controversial ingredients are now standard. But gels have lagged way behind.

The other issue with gels is the application and removal process, which can be really harsh on your nail beds. “Some gel products require a ‘rough-up’ of the natural nails with an electric drill or nail file so the product can adhere better,” explains Kallens. “Our gel goes directly on dry, clean nails,” so there’s no destroying your healthy nail in the name of beauty.

Regular nail polishes free of toxic ingredients are standard while gels have lagged way behind.

Removing the new gel polishes is also significantly less of a headache and doesn’t require scraping or a motorized anything (phew). “The formula responds positively when exposed to acetone for a short amount of time,” explains Kallens, so there’s no struggle. “The gel lifts from the nails, crumples up, and is easily removed with an orange wood stick.” (Acetone-free polish removers aren’t currently up to the task.)

And both salons use LED lights, rather than UV, to cure the polish between coats—which spares customers exposure to rays that can lead to premature aging and skin damage on their hands. (Mottled skin: Just what you wanted with your manicure!)

nail gels manicure service
Photo: Stocksy/Lawren Lu

Getting your hands clean

Safer nail polishes for customers mean safer working environments for nail techs, who are exposed to the chemicals they work with day in and day out. “After being in the [nail industry] and seeing the innovations that are happening, it’s very hard to look the other way,” says Kallens, who only wanted to work with the cleanest lines available for the benefit all the women in her salon. “It’s really exciting that this is now being offered in the industry.”

“We’re in an era out to prove that leaving out toxic ingredients doesn’t change performance.”

Bio Seaweed Gel’s 5-free polishes also don’t contain any ingredients on the Dirty Dozen list.”BSG is odorless, dustless, and safe—even for pregnant women,” says Kallens. That’s a whole new demographic that can enjoy the spoils of this sea change in nail services.

Both salon owners say this major innovation goes to show that you don’t have to sacrifice effectiveness when it comes to protecting your health through your beauty routine. “We’re in an era where we are really out to prove that leaving out toxic ingredients doesn’t change performance,” says Werman.

Promising an array of polish colors that rival the choices women are used to, NCLA’s Jones adds, “We want to stick to our mantra of keeping it clean but fashionable.” Perhaps it won’t be long before more nail salons across the country feel the same way.

Speaking of your nails, check out these 5 winter manicure trends to know (or DIY). And these are the top nail polishes that are 5-free.