Nails: Gel vs Silk vs Chemical – What is Best?

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Just like clothes, shoes, and hairstyles, painted nails are another way to enhance one’s appearance. With all the different kinds of manicures available, it can be difficult to choose the best one.


Chemical Nails

Chemical nail polish is the nail polish you typically think of and it is what most people associate with manicures. Even though the ingredients vary between manufacturers, there are a few compounds that are found in almost all chemical nail polishes. The main ingredient is nitrocellulose, a liquid compound that forms a hard film on top of the nail when dried. In addition to other compounds, plasticizers and resins are also added to increase the flexibility of the polish. Another important material is coloring pigment, which gives the nail polish its unique color. The application process consists of brushing the nail polish onto the nails and then allowing the polish to dry completely for around 1-2 hours.


Acrylic Nails

Acrylic nails can add length and strength to natural nails, especially for those who have a hard time growing their nails. Like most other manicures, the nails are cleaned and trimmed in preparation for the acrylic nail application. If more length is desired, a faux nail tip is secured to the nail with an adhesive. The nails are then formed by applying a mixture of an acrylic powder and liquid to the nail with a brush. As the nails air dry, the mixture hardens and creates a long-lasting durable nail. Regular chemical nail polish and embellishments such as rhinestones can be applied over the acrylic nails for some creativity.


Gel Nails

Gel nails, which are a form of acrylic nails, have become increasingly popular since they require less time to set compared to other manicures. To start, a bonder gel is brushed onto the nails to create a more compatible surface for the polish. Gel polish is then applied in its liquid state, just like chemical nail polish. The main difference between gel polish and chemical polish is the drying process. Gel polish requires curing (a hardening process) via an ultraviolet (UV) or light-emitting diode (LED) lamp in order to finish the entire procedure while chemical polish relies on air-drying. Gel polish contains compounds called acrylates that react with the light from the lamps, causing the individual units of the compounds in the gel to tightly link with each other. As a result of the curing process, the gel manicure dries and hardens quickly and lasts for about 2-3 weeks without chipping.


Silk Wrap Nails

The silk wrap nail manicure is primarily used to strengthen and improve the appearance of nails. Most people with brittle, thin, or damaged nails opt for this manicure. First, the nails must be buffed to a smooth texture so that the silk can properly adhere to them. Small pieces of silk are then shaped to the nails and are held in place with a sealant. Once the silk is secured, the nails are buffed again to remove any bumps. A clear polish may be added on top of the silk for extra security and for a glossy finish. The procedure can be completed at this stage because the results are very natural due to the thinness of the silk fabric. However, nail polish can be applied on top of the silk wrap if desired.


The Risks of Chemical, Gel, Acrylic, and Silk Wrap Nails

All of these manicures can pose some health risks. Many chemical nail polishes contain a plasticizer called triphenyl phosphate (TPHP). TPHP can be absorbed through the skin next to the nail and is associated with negative effects on hormones and reproduction. Although most people have been exposed to TPHP, the use of chemical nail polishes increases the exposure.

Acrylic sculptured nails and gel nails also contain ingredients that can be damaging. Many of the base ingredients in gel polish can cause thinning and brittleness. In addition, some people are allergic to ingredients (mainly acrylates) in the acrylic mixture and gel polish which causes severe skin reactions. There are some concerns about the UV exposure during the curing process. The amount of UV radiation emitted is low but can build up over time. Fingerless gloves and sunscreen application are recommended to protect the hands while the gel polish cures.

Perhaps the greatest damage to the nail is due to the removal process. Acetone is the main ingredient in nail polish remover and causes weakening and thinning of nails. Acrylic, gel, and silk wrap nails require soaking in acetone for proper removal while chemical nail polish can be easily removed with some acetone on a cotton ball. Acrylic nails and gel polish usually requires additional manual scraping, which can cause further injury to nails.


Which is Best?

None of these manicures are entirely without risk, so it really depends on preference. The application and removal of both acrylic nails and gel polish seem to cause the most damage to nails and the skin around them. However, gel polish manicures every now and then can be worthwhile since they are the longest-lasting. Acrylic nails are a cheaper option than gel polish, however, they are prone to chipping due to the inflexibility of the nail. The removal of silk wrap nails can also be quite damaging and may not be well-suited for active lifestyles, but nails can benefit from the protection that the manicure provides. Although chemical nail polishes may increase exposure to some toxic ingredients, the application and removal process is the easiest and least damaging.


Healthy Alternatives

One healthy alternative to these manicures is nail buffing. Nail buffers usually contain surfaces with varying levels of grit (medium-grained to fine-grained) to polish and even out the nail surface. This results in a shinier, smoother nail. Typically a buffing cream is applied to aid the smoothing process. Even though nail buffing is a healthier alternative, nails should not be buffed with too much pressure or too frequently since this can weaken the nails. Perhaps the healthiest alternative to manicures is simply to maintain natural nails by keeping them trimmed and filed and making sure the skin around the nails is properly moisturized.

Table 1. Summary of Pros and Cons





· Simple application process

· Easy and least damaging removal process

· Increases exposure to some toxic ingredients

· Not long-lasting

· 1-2 hour drying time


· Durable

· Adds length to natural nails

· Prone to chipping due to inflexibility

· Damaging removal process

· Possible allergies to ingredients


· Short curing time

· Lasts 2-3 weeks without chipping

· UV radiation exposure

· Most damaging removal process

· Can be expensive

· Possible allergies to ingredients


· Protects nails

· Most natural in appearance

· Less flexibility compared to other manicures

· Damaging removal process

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