Are Gel Extensions Really Bad for Your Nails? We Asked the Experts

As a beauty editor, I’ve tested thousands of products, trends, and treatments, but I certainly haven’t tried everything (in an industry as fast-paced and fickle as this, that would be nearly impossible). Take SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic ($166) for instance. I have yet to use a single drop, even though it’s an iconic product that makes other beauty editors wax poetic. I’ve also never gotten lash extensions (gasp!) or laminated my brows (double gasp!). It’s not like I’m intrinsically against any of these things. In fact, I would love to try them. I simply haven’t yet.  That goes for gel nail extensions, too. It wasn’t until recently that it even occurred to me to artificially lengthen my nails in this way. Let’s just say I saw some examples on Instagram, and my interest was piqued. Before I booked an appointment, though, I had some questions. Namely, I was concerned with the damaging reputation of gel extensions—all it takes is one Google search to learn about their semi-worrisome reputation. For the sake of my nail health, and that of others, I decided to take my questions to the experts. Keep scrolling to find out whether or not gel extensions are really as bad as people say. Plus, see examples of gel nail extensions, and get some nail design inspiration along the way. 

According to celebrity manicurist and Smith & Cult ambassador Jessica Tong, gel nail extensions are more of a category than a single technique. “Gel nail extensions can mean many forms of extensions,” she says. “It can be a tip glued to the nail with gel over it, a sculpted gel extension on a form, or an LED poly gel press-on extension.” No matter the type, gel extensions are an effective and durable way to lengthen nails. 

You might think gel extensions sound pretty similar to acrylics, so what’s the difference? “The primary difference is the application. Gel is a viscous liquid substance that becomes hard in the presence of UV or LED light. Acrylic is a liquid activator and acrylic powder that air dries.” Overall, “the main difference is how the substance becomes solid,” Tong says. 

Gel extensions also differ from acrylics based on aesthetics and potential for damage. Queenie Nguyen, an L.A.-based celebrity and editorial manicurist, says gel extensions are more natural-looking and less damaging. “They are easy to soak off with the least amount of physical drilling for removal,” she explains. “They are also lightweight and look more natural than acrylics.”

According to Syreeta AaronLeChat Nails educator, gel nails last just as long as acrylics, although regular upkeep is critical. She says that all nail enhancements, including gel extensions, should be maintained within two to three weeks. “Go no more than three weeks.”

This one was my number one burning question. After all, gel extensions have kind of a bad rap. According to Tong, though, it’s undeserved. “Many writers that are not nail professionals have spread a misconception that these products destroy your nails. This is not true. I understand that there are instances where damage can happen, but a lot of the time, it’s upkeep on the client’s part that’s not being done.” 

“If you want to have gel nails, long extensions, gel extensions, acrylic extensions, sculpted acrylics, or even a simple gel manicure, you need to be about that life, meaning these types of enhancements need mindfulness and care.” Tong likens nail enhancements to hair and lash extensions in that maintenance is necessary. “You must be prepared for the care, carefulness, and mindfulness it takes to live that long nail life,” she says. “You cannot use your enhanced nails as a tool to tear open plastic wrap and so on!”

Maintenance also means returning to the salon regularly. “Enhancements need to be filled or redone every 2–4 weeks depending on how fast your nails grow. Don’t let that extension grow beyond the nail bed and wonder why the weight of it tore off your natural nail.” 

Tong’s last piece of advice? Don’t pick or peel. Ever. “This is the most damaging thing you can do to yourself. Get yourself a fill when you’re due for a fill, and if you don’t want to get a fill, then have your nail professional remove the enhancement.” 

Aaron agrees that maintenance is key, and any damage that’s incurred can generally be traced back to maintenance (or the lack thereof). “Managing your nails is the most important key for maintaining the health of your nail,” she says. “Gel manicures don’t damage nails. What can be damaging is a poor removal process such as peeling off the polish or if your nail tech uses a harsh removal process.” 

There you have it. To avoid damage to your natural nails, don’t pick or peel, return to the salon regularly for upkeep, and make sure you’re going to a reputable professional in the first place. 

Both Tong and Aaron say that you can use regular nail polish on a gel extension, but they don’t prefer it. “You can use polish on a gel extension, but I personally like polish over acrylic more,” Tong says. “I recommend gel polish as it will of course last much longer,” Aaron says. 

Next, check out the 20 coolest nail designs we’re obsessed with right now