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It’s definitely fun to be pampered on occasion, and what better way to do so than getting a manicure. Sure, you could dab one of the season’s hottest hues on your fingers yourself and be done with it, but chances are you paint more outside the cuticle lines than in.

Salons offer a welcomed alternative, but how many times have you smudged your $30 manicure after reaching for your wallet? Enter the gel manicure, a long-lasting, quick-dry alternative that offers those nails a pretty coat of armour that’s practically impenetrable. But, are they bad for you? Turns out they can be. Here’s what you need to know.

What are gel manicures?

Gel nails go on the same way regular polish does, but rather than drying under a fan, the nails are placed under an ultraviolet light or LED to harden. Typically this process takes up to five coats, including a base and finish. The result is a shiny, hard coat of polish that should last you at least two weeks, or longer if you’re careful.

How do they come off?

Here’s the tricky part. Although it’s tempting to just peel the polish off once it starts to chip, you should never, ever do this. By peeling them, you also take off a layer of your actual nail, weakening the nail itself and the nail bed. Even scarier? It could take up to six months for your nail to repair itself.

Experts recommend returning to the salon for a proper soak and removal, but there are a few ways you can also do it at home:

1) Invest in a kit

Available at most beauty stores, these kits contain all the tools you need to safely remove your manicure with the least damage to your nails. Sephora’s Geltox Detox runs for $30, and should last you through several manicures.

2) Try a DIY foil

Take a nail file and lightly buff the surface of your nail until the sheen is gone. Then soak a cotton ball in nail polish remover, place it on top of your nail and wrap it with foil. Repeat for the remaining nails, wait 10 to 15 minutes, then watch the polish slide right off.

3) The old fashioned way

If you’re out of cotton balls and foil, fill a large bowl with warm water and place a smaller bowl of polish remover inside to slowly heat it up (don’t heat it up in the microwave or in the oven, as it’s completely flammable). As the remover warms up, lightly buff your nails with a file, then soak them for 10 to 15 minutes. As you wait, the polish should begin to lift at the corners. Use a cuticle stick to help the process along until each nail is completely removed.

With any of these methods, be sure to massage lots of hand cream and cuticle oil in afterwards. 

Is all that acetone safe?

Unfortunately, no, not really. By exposing your nails to that much acetone — or nail polish remover — they will definitely absorb some of the harsh chemicals. Usually this will only damage and weaken your nails, but in some cases it can continue on and be absorbed in your blood stream as well.

How often should you get one?

Even if you remove your manicure the proper way, your nails will undergo some damage from the polish. It’s inevitable thanks to the nature of the product; the polish completely covers the nails, thus not allowing the nails to transfer oxygen. Experts recommend that you have a good look at your natural nails and give them a break every two weeks. This will not only allow your nails to repair themselves, but will give you an opportunity to make sure there’s no hidden infection or damage to your nails and nail bed.

A golden rule to follow? Don’t get back-to-back gel manicures. Allow your nails a chance to heal first.

What’s the deal with the UV light?

We know that tanning under one is bad, so why do we assume that basking our nails under one is safe? Turns out, it might not be. The research is still out, but there could be a link between UV lights and cancer, according to some researchers. The scary part is that the lights these salons use aren’t regulated, which means you could be getting a varied dose of light depending where you go.

One thing we do know for sure is that exposing your hands to UV light could cause premature aging on your hands. Think wrinkles, dark spots and more. To avoid exposure during your manicure, bring your own protective cream and be sure to get your manicurist to apply it before you go under the light.

So what’s the bottom line?

While it’s fine to indulge every once in a while, consistent gel manicures could wreak havoc on your nails. It’s probably best to save them for special occasions (your next business trip or vacay), and stick to regular old polish the rest of the time. If you’re addicted to that long-lasting effect, however, there are some new products hitting the market that have gel properties and promise to last for up to two weeks, but come off the good old fashioned way with a cotton wipe and some remover. Try Sally Hansen’s Miracle Gel, available at Shoppers Drug Mart and Walmart.