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Are salon gel manicures worth the expense?

Gel nail polish is applied. (WJLA photo)

WASHINGTON (WJLA) - Head into any nail salon in our area and the number-one request is a gel nail polish manicure.

In some cases, for example, at TM Nails in Arlington, they account for 90 percent of business. The gel polish share isn’t that high at the Metropolitan Nail Bar on Pentagon Row or the L.A. Nails on Columbia Pike, but the service still dominates sales.

“Everyone I know does gel. They swear by it,” said Sheila Cordaro, a customer 7 On Your Side recruited to test various “gel” polish products.

Gel polish popularity has eclipsed the use of traditional nail polish, even though gel is more expensive, requires UV light to harden, raises potential skin cancer concerns, and forces the customer to return to the salon to get it off without damaging the nail. It is popular because it lasts longer, sometimes as long as two weeks.

Because of the high demand for gel polish in salons, manufacturers don’t want to miss out on marketing a “gel” polish sold over the counter in drug stores. The polish advertises “no light” and “sans lampe,” peppered with promises like “miracle” and “longwear.” But can it really compete with its salon counterpart?

7 On Your Side consumer reporter Kimberly Suiters asked two women to try salon gel polish on the right hand and store gel polish on the left to see which would last longer.

The potential for a cost savings is high. Salons charge anywhere from $35 to $45 dollars for a gel nail polish manicure; stores are selling “gel” polish for less than $10.

“I am curious to see how it turns out,” said Inga Middleton, one of the testers. “And see if I can do this at home and save my money.”

After two weeks, there was no doubt that the salon gel polish held up far better. While the new store gel polish appeared shinier than traditional nail polish, it started to chip nearly as quickly, within four days of the manicure. And Middleton’s salon gel chipped on the eighth day, which convinced her that the higher price was not worth it.

Cordaro preferred the salon gel polish until the moment it had to come off. Each step made her uncomfortable, starting with the foil wrapped around her fingertips.

“ET … phone … home,” she uttered in a cartoonish voice as she waved her foiled fingers.

The process of buffing, filing, and finally scraping off the gel sealed the deal. “Grueling,” said Cordaro, describing the 20-minute removal process.

By contrast, the store-bought gel polish came off as easily as standard nail polish, something both Cordaro and Middleton appreciated.

“Between the two, I would do the store-bought,” said Middleton, a real estate agent and mother of three boys, who admits she’s rough on her nails with constant cooking, cleaning and working out.

“I like to take it off after a few days and change the color, and the salon gel chipped anyway,” she said.

I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the store brands of gel as Middleton and Cordaro were. To me, the longevity of a salon gel manicure, the lack of chipping, and the guarantee that the polish won’t smudge the moment you reach into your wallet are worth the extra price.

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