Dear Beauty Editor,
I love getting gel manicures, but my normally healthy nails take at least a month to recover from them. Are there any alternatives?
Rachel, hi! I’m in gel recovery, too. Last month, a few of my gels started to peel up at the edges, and instead of doing a proper removal, I sat down to watch The Last of Us and spent 45 minutes nervously picking off the color as I developed an irrational fear of mushrooms. When the episode was over, my gels were gone and my bare nails were as rough and ragged as tree bark. Since then, I’ve been testing a few polish systems that are much easier on nails than gels, and there are two I really like: Dazzle Dry, a lacquer system that lasts longer than traditional polish or hybrids and doesn’t need to be cured by lights or soaked off, and the Green Flash system from Manucurist (yes, that’s the brand name), which cures via UV light, like traditional gels, but only needs a one-minute soak to remove.
Before I tell you about them, a quick reminder: “Damage after nail gels comes from improper nail prep or removal,” according to Julie K Nail Artelier founder and celebrity manicurist Julie Kandalec — and every other manicurist I’ve ever interviewed about this topic. So, if you decide to get gels again, make sure you remove them carefully. You or your manicurist should file the top coat gently, just to break the seal; do an acetone soak until the layers of top coat, color, and gel base dissolve into flakes (sometimes this can take at least 15 minutes); and then gently push away the detritus. Your nail underneath may be dehydrated from the acetone, but it should not be physically damaged. If you or a manicurist scrapes the gel to detach it from your nail beds or files too much (with an electronic file or a regular emery board), the top layer of the nails will be compromised — sometimes badly enough that you’ll have to wait for the damaged portion to grow out.
With that reminder out of the way, let’s move on to the fun stuff. I’ve found two systems that look as good as regular gels, last (almost) as long, and remove easily without damage.
Manucurist’s Green Flash system, a recent Parisian import, is pretty impressive. You apply the special base coat, color step, and top coat like a traditional gel system, curing each layer under an LED light (make sure to protect your hands from UV damage). The curing time depends on the power of your light; Manucurist makes an 18-watt travel light that cures each layer in two minutes and a full-size, 36-watt light that cures each layer in one minute.
When it’s time to remove your manicure, you place a cotton pad soaked in the Green Flash Nail Polish Remover on each nail, and keep it in place with the brand’s nail clips, which come with the starter kit and are also sold as part of a duo set with the remover. (FYI: If you usually do your own removal, the clips are way easier than trying to wrap your fingers in those little aluminum-foil packets that always slip off anyway.) Then you wait one minute. That’s it: one minute! When you remove the clips and cotton, the color is gone or, sometimes, it’s laying on your nail like a tiny dehydrated fruit roll-up. All you have to do is lift it off. Since there’s no picking, scraping, or peeling — and the remover isn’t quite as dehydrating as pure acetone — your nails remain healthy.
As for the color, it looks almost as good as traditional gel, though it’s slightly thinner and not quite as plump and juicy as a gel mani. I used Saphir, a saturated blue-gray that stayed smooth and shiny for ten days before the tips of a few nails started to chip. (For comparison, a regular manicure usually chips on me in three days, and a gel manicure from my favorite local salon usually lasts two weeks.)
The Dazzle Dry System launched more than a decade ago, but when salons were closed during the pandemic, it skyrocketed in popularity among former gel enthusiasts — and for good reason. “It comes off just like regular polish, so most of my clients don’t realize when I’m using it on them — they just think my manicures last forever,” says celebrity nail stylist Mazz Hanna.
There are four steps to the system: a non-drying nail prep that removes any dirt or oil, a clear base coat with polyurethane, the colored lacquer, and a film-forming top coat. When applied as directed, the finished manicure looks voluminous and super-shiny, just like a traditional gel manicure. Plus, it air-dries in only five minutes; you don’t need a UV lamp.
My most recent Dazzle Dry manicure lasted 11 days, and then a tiny bit of polish on my thumb started to peel up. The other nails probably would have lasted a few more days, but I’m a picker, so I decided to remove the entire manicure in order to prevent temptation. And the removal is the best part: Dazzle Dry comes off easily with whatever type of polish remover you like to use.
My only issue with the system is that it’s susceptible to user error. If you don’t follow the directions exactly, you won’t get the gel-like results. The first time I tried it, my base coat looked cloudy, but I ignored the (very clearly stated) warning on the instructions and applied it anyway. That manicure lasted only a few days. So, I did everything again and actually followed the directions: When the temperature dips below 70 degrees, the base coat can get rubbery, so you’re supposed to place the bottle in a cup of warm water to re-liquefy the formula. Sure enough, when I did that, the cloudiness went away, the system worked perfectly, and I got almost two weeks out of my manicure.
If you’re not great at painting your own nails, you can bring either of the systems above to a nail tech (along with the directions, in case they’re not familiar with the products) and you’ll basically get the look and longevity of gels, without the potential damage. Or, you can give your nails a breather for the next month and then go back to the traditional gels. Just make sure you remove them correctly next time.
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