Well, Actually is a column by Slate’s Shannon Palus. She tests health and wellness products to help readers figure out what they should try, what they should skip, and why.
If there is one lesson I’ve learned over years of reviewing products, it’s that most things just aren’t worth buying. Still, I approached a home gel manicure kit with a sense of deep optimism. Regular manicures chip quickly for me, whether I get them from a salon or do them myself. Gel manicures tend to hold. The problem with gel manicures is that getting one is expensive and requires a lot of effort to be removed. Plus, I prefer to paint my nails while watching Veep reruns on my couch. Which is probably why, even though they’ve been popular for years, I’ve only ever gotten one gel manicure ever. (It was great! And expensive.) In seeking my second gel manicure, I wondered if I could do it at home.
In the 1990s, gel was merely a clear, pink, or white substance that provided a specialized way to add some shape to a nail, recalls Jim McConnell, a polymer chemist. His wife, Lezlie, owned a nail salon and would use a European brand of the stuff there. Around 2000, the McConnells teamed up to form Light Elegance, a nail polish company with chemistry bona fides. They started making gels with pigment added right in to sell to salons, putting them at the forefront of the gel manicure trend. The product took off from there, and today, gel manicures are extremely popular. It “is definitely our clients’ go-to,” according to Lindsey Kaszuba, the director of operations at Paintbox, a high-end nail design studio in New York, where nearly 90 percent of the manicures are done with gel, which forms a harder, longer-lasting surface than traditional polish.
Typical nail lacquer, or nail polish, is made up of pigment plus a sort of plastic-y substance called nitrocellulose dissolved in a solvent. Apply it to a nail, and the solvent dries up, leaving behind a film that’s about the thickness of a piece of paper, according to McConnell. Gel instead has molecules called photoinitiators that, when hit with a specific wavelength of light, start a chain reaction to link the rest of the molecules in the substance together. A regular nail polish can be removed with specific liquids because it is essentially being redissolved. A true gel has to be physically filed off your nail by a pro. Which is why what we usually refer to as a gel manicure is done with a substance that’s a hybrid of gel and traditional polish—some solvent, some photoinitiators. This allows the stuff to be soaked off with acetone, making gel manicures a feasible home project requiring just one set of hands.
I ordered a kit from Sally Hansen, picking a larger more sophisticated version of model that won the Allure Best of Beauty award two years in a row. I organized the lamp and a row of polishes—base coat, color, top coat—on my coffee table one morning before work and got to it, placing my fingers under a small lamp for 30 seconds after each coat. The intensity of the light made my nail beds ache slightly, a dull but entirely bearable pain. The process didn’t take all that long, all told, as there was no additional drying time, as required with a regular DIY manicure. My nails looked good! I was excited to start my life as a human with perfect nails.
Approximately one day later, the edge of the polish on one nail started to bubble up. I picked at it. A chunk came right off.
What had gone wrong? First, I wondered if Sally Hansen, attempting to make a polish that was tough, but not so tough it couldn’t be removed by an amateur, had just erred too far on the gentle side. There are, after all, a pretty wide range of formula balances: There are “no-light” gels, like Sally Hansens’ Miracle Gel, which cure in natural sunlight and do not require a specialized lamp at all. McConnell told me those probably have just a bit of actual gel in them. This makes them more durable than regular polish, without the burden of specialized equipment to apply them. While my gel did use a light, perhaps it was closer to this no-light gel than the durable stuff used at salons.
I also figured the lamp was just … cheap. After all, it was made of plastic. That dull burning-like sensation, McConnell told me, was an indication of that the photoinitiator reaction happened too fast. A higher-quality lamp would have greater ability to change in intensity, creating a more measured reaction and a smoother gel-ification process. Another problem with home gel manicures is that different polishes require different wavelengths to set, meaning you can’t mix polishes with different lights and expect a solid result. But everything I used was from the kit brand, so the polish and lamp should have been adequately matched. And McConnell guessed that Sally Hansen, a company with a good reputation, probably sells decent enough lamps.
Still, when I tried giving myself a manicure with the kit a second time for good measure, the polish still came peeling off within a day or two. The confusing thing was that so many people have provided glowing reviews of the Sally Hansen kit. The overall average on the one I bought wasn’t very high, at 3.6 stars over some 500 reviews. But what enticed me to this kit in the first place was the 276 absolutely glowing reviews. Titles like “almost professional,” “not enough good things to say.” Endorsements like “my first gel manicure lasted a little over 2 weeks with no peeling!” Why the vast range of results from what should be the same hardware?
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It turns out that for all the chemical magic in gel polish, how well the product works still comes down to skill. “It sounds like it was a prep issue,” Evelyn Lim, Paintbox’s chief educator, told me when I explained my home manicure woe. She noted that the cuticle should be removed from the nail plate, something that I had neglected to do. The kit had even told me to push my cuticle back, but I had glossed over the instructions because I assumed that I knew how to give myself a manicure and didn’t like pushing back my cuticles anyway. But with gel, that step is important, because, as McConnell explained, “if you even touch the side of the skin at the cuticle region, you can get lifting.” So, two people who have a conflict of interest against home manicures were suggesting that the kit should be fine. And several of the glowing reviews note that you have to follow the instructions to the letter; some even spell them out for emphasis. Reading them, I noticed I had missed a second step entirely: buffing the nail with an included file. This is essential, because a scratched-up surface makes for a grippier base.
So, I tried a third time, pushing and scratching before painting. And it worked: I am now excited to call myself a fan of this kit. Nearly a week in, it’s chipped only slightly, which is very good. If only home gel manicures would take off, now: With a low rating, and presumably low-ish sales, there are only 15 shades to choose from (versus 85 in the “no-light” Miracle Gel line). But if you’re game for making one of them a go-to color, this kit is effective and fun, and economical compared with going to a salon.