When my hands were on the gym floor in push-up position, my friend said, "Wow, your nails look great." I cackled knowingly inside. I had a hard-living beauty secret.
It had been almost a month since I'd had a manicure, yet my nails looked pristine, at least to a fuzzy, far-off eye. This manicure was serious. It was legit. I had sexy Wolverine adamantium nails. And they were mine!
I'm a recovering acrylic nail addict. I wore fakies for 8 years starting in high school. They were long and gaudy and over the top. I would sit for an hour while a nail tech drilled my real nail down to the thickness of rice paper, built fake ones on top then topped them with polish that took forever to dry. Within two weeks they were frequently broken, but my nails looked so bad underneath that I went back again. It was a money suck, a time suck, a sophistication suck.
Giving it up was liberating. I was able to enjoy manicures without drills again. Turns out, the nail tech does nice things like massage your hands and wrap them in heated towels. The glory! But within days, the polish would chip and peel. The money and time felt wasted.
When I heard about the latest manicure trend, I was cautiously optimistic. Gel manicures with products like Shellac were supposed to last up to two weeks in perfect condition, and women everywhere were running to salons to get them. I was wary of going back to something that might hurt my nails again, but it seemed worth a try.
It was. I've been getting gel manicures at my favorite salon, New York Nails in downtown St. Petersburg, for a couple months now. I swear it's the most relaxing place in the city. It's not ornate or upscale, but it's calm with soft, twinkling music, and after your manicure the techs give you a back rub. No, really. A back rub.
But back to the Shellac. New York Nails has dozens of colors from CND's Shellac line, the brand that set off the frenzy. Other brands on the market include Gelish from Hand and Nail Harmony and Gelcolor from OPI. A plain gel manicure is $30, and you can add $5 for French.
The nail tech trims your nails, then files them, then pushes back your cuticles, moisturizes your hands and does the hot towel drape. Ahhh. She layers a gel base, several coats of color and a gel topcoat. Between each step, you stick your hands under a UV lamp to harden the materials. When you're done, the nails are immediately dry. No performing the Get the Keys Out and Wreck Your Polish Shuffle.
My French manicure held up like nothing I'd ever experienced. Since the color was so light, you couldn't see the nail growth unless you were awkwardly close. I did dishes, typed, picked up dog poop. I even participated in a 5K race and obstacle course in which I scaled rope walls and swam through mud. I didn't have a single nail break and they cleaned right up.
The removal was a little Space Age. She dipped cotton swabs in nail polish remover, put them on my nails and wrapped each finger in tin foil. I looked like ET after a Pillsbury biscuit bake-off. After a few minutes, she was able to scrape away the polish and my nails were in good shape.
My next mani at New York Nails was slightly less successful. I opted for OPI's teal shade, and it seemed to keep sucking up the topcoat. The nail tech wasn't thrilled with it either, but she gave me my back rub and I became mellowed into happy submission. It was thicker than the French, and it betrayed growth more easily because of the dark color. Two weeks and I was ready for a replacement set, hardcore.
I decided to try Tiffany Nail & Spa inside Westshore Plaza. It was busy at lunchtime, loud and small. The tech didn't employ the gentle cotton-swab technique. She soaked my fingers in a big bowl of nail polish remover and scraped them with her own fingers until the gel came off. She even pulled out the dreaded drill for the last stubborn bits. I have to say, this wasn't the most pleasant thing in the world.
The rest of the manicure, though, was speedy and well-done. I was out in just over a half-hour. And, it was cheaper at $25 for solid pink CND polish. I loved the result. I noticed no one in the shop getting the old-school acrylics. They do half and half now, my tech said, and it's growing.
At the Salon Lofts on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg, nail specialist Dawn Pratt estimates 85 percent of her clientele opts for gel manicures now. After 9 years in the nail business, she has seen a tremendous shift.
"I do find that a lot of girls are doing exactly what you did, taking off their acrylics," said Pratt, whose gel manicures start at $35. "Now they have a product that will allow them to grow their natural nails. Gel answered a lot of their complaints. It lasted two weeks. It was dry when they walked out."
If you do opt for Shellac, be aware that your hands must sit under a UV lamp in spurts that can total up to 10 minutes. Some doctors have raised concerns about this, comparing it to tanning beds. The nail folks say it's low-risk. Pratt compared the lamps to the sun exposure you'd get walking from your car into the salon.
The biggest drawback in Pratt's eyes is the acetone used for removal, which can be drying. She makes sure to use cuticle oil and moisturizer on clients. The FDA has worked to ban fishy chemicals in polish, but if you have a bad feeling about a product or can't get a straight answer about what's in it, never be afraid to leave a nail shop.
After reading up, I think I'm going to start wearing waterproof sunscreen on my hands before I go, like many doctors suggest. I don't want a disease or premature hand wrinkles. Not even for awesome Wolverine nails.