So you picked off your shellac. Now what?

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Until roughly 4 years ago, I rarely wore colour on my nails.

I’d slap some bright polish on once in a while for an evening out, but I’d always remove it the next day. I’m sure you’re thinking, “So what? Plenty of women don’t do much with their nails.” The difference is, I’m a manicurist – I have been for over 20 years. I never wore polish on my short, natural nails because I was doing manicures and pedicures all day, wielding cotton pads soaked with remover and removing excess polish from my clients’ cuticles with my thumbnail.

Nail polish lasted a sum total of ten minutes on me. Now, you’ll never see me with bare nails.

What’s changed? Gel polish. Now my manicure lasts at least two weeks, and I have a huge array of rainbow colours and glitter at my disposal. I knew gel polish was going to be a massive game-changer for the nail industry as soon as I experimented with it back in 2010. If it’s going to last on someone like me, imagine what the average manicure client is going to get out of it!

It has completely revolutionised the nail industry. Clients can go two to three weeks without chipping, their nails stay glossy, and for many, the slightly-thicker-than-polish gel formula acts as a protective coating, allowing nails to grow and keeping them safe from water damage. Where there was once only CND’s Shellac, there are now hundreds of brands of gel polish available to both professional salons and the consumer.

Unfortunately, as with all things that seem to be too good to be true, concerns have arisen about our beloved gel polish. Let’s go through some common concerns and complaints about gel polish:

“It all peeled off just a few days after I had it applied”

This is something I hear quite often, and I’ll tell you what no manicurist wants to hear – the product was not applied properly. This is what is known in the industry as “service breakdown”. And it’s almost always the fault of the person applying the product, not the product itself (as long as it is a genuine, salon brand professional product). Harsh, but true.

“I had my gel manicure removed and they drilled my nails/soaked my hands in a bowl of acetone/scraped my nail beds until they hurt”

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me this, I’d have retired to Hawaii years ago. There is one proper way to remove gel polish, and that’s the acetone+foil wrap method. Many nail salons will take the wraps off too soon and start scraping away at your nails, when all they need to do is leave the nails wrapped for an extra 5 minutes for the gel to just slide off with a little nudging from a cuticle stick. There should be no filing (except with a soft buffer), harsh scraping, and NEVER any drilling. A manicure should never hurt, and any kind of nail enhancement should not leave your nails in a worse state than they were before.

“I leave my gel polish on for 4 weeks and only remove it because it’s grown out!”

Everyone who tells me this is always super-proud of themselves. This is fine, but do realise that if you wear your gel polish for longer than the recommended length of time (generally two weeks – varies by brand), the more difficult it will be to remove and the longer it will need to soak off. Why is this? Because the gel polish will keep curing every time it’s in UV light – yep, the sun is making your gel polish harder to remove. This is also quite common after a sun-soaked beach holiday. My clients and I just settle in for a cup of tea and a chat (or I leave them to relax with a gossip mag) while the acetone does it’s work.


“I had [brand name of gel polish] and it wrecked my nails.”

This statement always requires follow-up questions from me – “how was it applied?” and “how was it removed?” If the removal process entails anything from ones I outlined previously (drilling/filing/scraping), then the product didn’t wreck your nails, the manicurist wrecked your nails. Sometimes, though, this is when a confession is made and it brings us to the next concern:

“I picked my gel polish off. Now what?”

Oh, I know how it goes. You get busy. You don’t have time to get back to the salon. You can’t find pure acetone anywhere (pro tip: hardware stores and art supply stores) to soak it off yourself, and after the three week mark it started lifting around the edges and it was just toooo tempting not to pick a little in that really boring meeting or on the train home.

So, is picking your gel polish off the worst nail sin ever? Well, technically speaking, when you peel or pick off the product it’s going to remove a thin layer of your nail. That’s a fact. Now I’m now going to incur the wrath of every nail brand educator and say no, it’s not the worst thing. However, this comes with a big caveat. It all depends on the state of your nails before you had the gel polish applied.

If you have thick, strong nails, picking isn’t going to affect them much because you have more nail to spare than someone who already has thin, weak, or peeling nails. Repeated picking of gel polish will result in thinner nails over time, however, so don’t make a habit of it. And if you do, don’t blame the product. I’m an occasional picker, too, so I understand, I really do, and I’ll never tell you off for picking. I may just shake my head sadly.

To conclude, gel polish is a fantastic, versatile product that always elicits cries of, “I can’t believe I can just stick my hand in my bag and not mess up my nails!” Whether you spend an afternoon with girlfriends perfecting your at-home technique with a consumer gel kit, or do your research and find a star manicurist to look after your precious digits, just remember, with any salon service, the product is only as good as the person applying it.

Erin Margrethe is a licenced nail technician with over 20 years of nail industry experience in both the US and Australia. She beautifies the hands and feet of Melbourne at Blonde Tiger in Collingwood, and she is also the founder of Tiger Claw, Australia's first nail art subscription box.

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