How Gel Nail Polish Changed Manicures

I like to paint my nails. Crazy colors, glitter, rhinestones, I’m into all of it. And knowing this, starting about two years ago, certain friends of mine who have began pushing me to try this new kind of nail polish they were in love with: gel nail polish. By now you’ve heard of this. Gel nail polish is applied at the salon where they “set” the polish under a UV light. You stick your wet nails into a glowing blue light box and a few minutes later, voila, your nail polish is perfectly dry and hardened.

When converts talk to you about gel nail polish, they say a lot of the same things about what makes it so revolutionary and awesome and why you’re crazy if you’re not already on board. My mom like the gel because, “When you leave the salon the polish is dry and strong. I always seem to bump one of my fingers when I’m getting the car or fiddling with my keys.” My friend Sarah agrees, “you can’t beat the fact that it’s immediately dry and I can walk out of the manicure place without having to stare at the wall or an old Ok! magazine for 20 minutes waiting for it to set.”

The other argument they make is that it lasts forever. Early adopter Anaheed says, “The very first time I got a CalGel manicure I was instantly an intolerant snob. Leaving the salon I was like, “Why does anyone even GET a regular manicure?! I will NEVER UNDERSTAND.” I mean why would you paint your nails with regular polish, which chips off in a day or two if you’re me and constantly typing/cooking/washing dishes, if you can have GLORIOUS NAIL ART that stays perfect for two or three WEEKS and you can do anything, even play a guitar without a pick, if you can play guitar in the first place, which I cannot, and it never, ever chips.”

Are you sold yet? That is inevitably what they want to know after these impromptu product pitch presentations your friends have generously given you: “Sounds perfect, right? It will probably literally save your life. Why are we still talking? Why are you not calling the salon this very second to make an appointment? What is WRONG with you? Can’t you hear me!? I am talking in ALL CAPS!”

But I was not stirred. It was half “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and half “I’ll get around to it.” So, finally, a few months ago, along came a real reason to give this new technology a whirl: I was moving across the country in a truck. I knew I’d be doing some damage on my hands for a bit there with the packing, so chipless polish would be nice. Plus, spending a week or two in the cab of a truck and stopping only for food and sleep didn’t really mesh well with a frequent mani-pedi habit, so I thought the time was right. I got my first gel manicure and immediately began to sort the world into “us” versus “them, only I was on the “them” side: I hated it.

“Quelle horreur!” you would say if you were my friend who loved gel nail polish and was also French. Here comes a probably-not-very-convincing but very true list of the things I didn’t like. First off, you can’t see the actual color of the nail polish before it goes on your nail. Because the polish reacts to light, the bottles aren’t clear so you’re kind of guessing that the color of the plastic the bottle is made of or the sticker the lady is showing you will turn out the same color on your nail, and in my case it was a little less vibrant than I was hoping for. Not a huge deal, but a minus for sure. Also, when I got mine done, they didn’t take as much time doing the soaking and cleaning and filing and massaging part of the manicure, I assume because setting the polish under the light for three minutes after every coat is a little time consuming. It’s possible this was a problem specific to my nail place, so if for some insane reason you’re headed to get some gel polish put on right now, hopefully your place won’t rush through the pampering.

The two biggest problems I had with this stuff, though, came at opposite ends of my experience. The first happened while I was still at the salon. After they applied the top coat they were like “Okay, you’re done. Go home.” It felt… disappointing? I didn’t want my manicure to be over, I guess. As opposed to my mom and my pals, I don’t mind sitting around afterward waiting for my nails to dry. I think I even enjoy it? It’s “me” time, or whatever; a forced half hour of stillness in the day, or at least a wonderful excuse to sit and read gossip rags. Without it, I felt a little short changed.

And then, after three weeks with the same nail polish on, the other thing I hate about gel nail polish was that THREE WEEKS LATER I STILL HAD THE SAME DANG NAIL POLISH ON. To me, a chip in my polish is just an opportunity to grab some wine, turn on a DVR’d episode of Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee and hang out with myself and some paint.

It also sucks that, unless you want to spend a ton of money buying a home setup, you are forced to go to the salon when you want a change. Doing my nails at home is one of my favorite past times. And that is when it hit me: gel nail polish is for folks who have issues with regular polish and manicures. Like any invention, gel nail polish fills a need, but you have to have that need in order to want the thing to be invented in the first place. To each his own nail polish.

Now that I have completely crapped all over them, I will tell you the ONE cool thing — to me — about gel nail polish. This is an amazing beauty secret my friend Julie revealed to me when I asked her why she loves stupid gel nail polish so much. Ready? Julie says, “the gel doesn’t come off with regular nail polish remover, so if you’re into DIY nail design like I am (dots, stripes, etc.), then you can do a design on top of the solid gel manicure, then take it off and change it up the next week, without messing up the underlying color. I love it!” Okay, fine, me too.

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