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wiseGEEK: What are UV Gel Nails?

UV gel nails are artificial extensions worn on the fingertips, and they can be applied at home or in a salon as an alternative to acrylics. They use ultraviolet light to cure the gel during the application process. Although the time commitment for application and upkeep is high, wearers can decorate a set according to their tastes and achieve a natural look. Similar to other kinds of fake extensions, they come with their own set of health concerns.

How They Work

Ultraviolet gel contains chemicals known as photoinitiators that give off free radicals when exposed to ultraviolet light. UV light has a very short wavelength, and people cannot see it with the naked eye. The free radicals released by the gel cause other molecules within the gel to bond with each other, making it stiff.

Application Process

Putting on a set of ultraviolet gels begins with cleaning, buffing, and clipping back the natural nails. Once this is finished, the person doing the application chooses plastic extensions that closely match the surface of the nail bed in shape. She files these extensions down for a more exact fit and then uses glue to attach them about halfway down the real nails.

Plastic extensions can be extremely long right out of the package, so once they are secure on the hand, the wearer or manicurist uses clippers to trim them back to a more manageable length. Filing removes most of the noticeable bump between the extension and the real nail. UV gel, which sometimes needs a primer. fills in the gap between the extension and the cuticle and coats the plastic.

After the manicurist or wearer applies the gel, the wearer puts her hand under a UV lamp to start the curing process. Generally, the person putting on the set polishes the extensions with an activator or sealer, which gets rid of any sticky residue that might still be on the nail. Filing down the tips for a natural look is the last step.

Sometimes, wearers opt for no-light gels instead of the more common UV variety. Technicians or wearers put these on in the same way, but the style doesn’t require UV light for curing. Instead, a manicurist might brush or spray a curing chemical onto fake tips. With other types, a simple dip of the fingers in water will initiate the curing process.


Unlike other types of artificial nails, the ultraviolet style won’t come off with a soak in remover. To remove a set, the wearer or a manicurist has to file them off. Doing this can be uncomfortable and can damage the real nail underneath, but it eliminates the use of additional chemicals.

Appearance and Decoration

A big reason people like to wear UV gel nails is because they look more natural than acrylics. The length of the plastic used and evenness of filing plays a role here. Plain sets have a glossy, strong, and healthy look that catches the eye. The most common colors for the gel are clear and pink, which are fairly neutral, but they come in many different shades that change how dramatic an undecorated set looks. Wearers also have the option of going for a simple coat of colored polish afterward.

For a look that’s more elaborate, some people move past a basic polish and have a technician paint scenes or designs on the nails. A good technician also can put on beads or gems. Some people choose to design just one or two tips on each hand as accents.

At Home or


Most people can learn to apply their own UV gel nails at home. Doing this can be cheaper than going to a salon, but getting started means buying everything the manicurist normally would use, including the ultraviolet lamp. It usually makes more sense to go to the salon when a person wears false UV gel nails only once in a while.

The main reason people go to a salon to get artificials is that they believe the manicurist’s experience will mean a more professional result. This isn’t always the way it turns out, though. An inexperienced technician can provide a set that looks bumpy, crooked or doesn’t last. Additionally, not all salons keep their equipment and spaces as clean as they should.

Strength and Durability

In general, acrylics beat out UV gel nails in terms of how much of a beating they can take. Using high-quality products and adhering to the manufacturer’s curing recommendations results in a stronger set, however. When this type of artificial breaks, it may shatter, making a simple repair with glue hard to do.

If properly applied and cared for, a set of UV gel nails lasts about three and a half weeks. After that, the growth of the real nail means space starts to appear between the gel and the cuticle. At the very least, wearers have to touch this up and fill in the gap with more gel.

Time Commitment

Depending on the exact type of product and strength of the lamp used, a gel coat takes anywhere from two to six minutes to cure and harden. A layer of gel is thin, however, so generally, the technician or wearer puts on and dries several coats. A new set typically takes up to two hours to complete because of this, and a touch up and refill can still take about 45 minutes.


The cost of getting artificials of this type depends on the quality of the products used. If a person has them applied in a salon, then the location of the salon and the experience of the technician contribute to the cost, too. The initial application costs the most, but the cost of refills quickly adds up and often is what drives people to start doing their own artificial nails at home.

People who choose to do their own UV gel nails at home will need to buy the plastic extensions, UV gel, curing lamp, and other products, like files and polish. The expense of this equipment can add up quickly.

Health Considerations

The ultraviolet lamps people use for this type of artificial extension are not much different than tanning beds. They can damage the skin, and although more research is necessary to confirm a direct link, experts are concerned that using the lamps too often increases the risk of skin cancer. To reduce the odds of getting sick, health professionals recommend using sunscreen on the hands, especially around the cuticle.

Artificial extensions cover much of the real nail and eliminate its ability to "breathe." Fungi can sometimes grow under the plastic. Once a person takes the artificial nails off, the real nails might be painfully sensitive because they haven’t been exposed to the environment. Another concern is that the ultraviolet curing process can get quite hot, and some people find it painful. Bringing the hands closer to the UV lamp a little bit at a time, coupled with putting the fingers in front of a small fan, can reduce or eliminate the pain that sometimes accompanies the process.

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