Falling Hard For CalGel Nails

Alessandra Codinha, Gel Manicure

People talk a lot about "breaking points"—moments when, through some tremendous strain (or the accumulation of a lot of little strains), you’re forced to make a choice, take a stand, or do something to address whatever personal issues/demons. For me, it was less a "break" than a split: the other day, my right thumbnail fractured down the center and right into the quick, where no hardening topcoat could save it and where it later snagged on a loose thread in one of those lip-biting, eye-watering, bellow-at-nobody-in-particular, day-ruiningly painful moments. It hurt, it looked awful, and it was depressing. I was just sick of it, of having nails with jagged ends that chipped and snagged and ripped without regular maintenance. (Plus, as you might recall, I get so bored during the dry time. So, so bored. I have ruined probably 60% of the pedicures I’ve ever gotten by shoving freshly painted toes into my shoes to get out before they were dry.) But I’m supposed to be something of a beauty authority, right? I was embarrassed. How long can I have a band-aid on my thumb? I thought about drastic measures, I tried nail glue, and I scheduled an appointment at the consistently-booked-up and very-buzzed-about NYC nail mecca, Sakura.

Let’s dial it back: I am not really a fan of fake anything (tans, hair, teeth, etc), but especially not of fake nails. At best, they pass for real; at worst, they’re tacky and verge on scary. And they come with a certain high-maintenance, low-on-substance connotation I’m ashamed to admit I care about, but that I can’t avoid taking into consideration. In seventh grade, I got acrylic tips, obtained without my mother's knowledge, and regretted the whole procedure almost as soon as it had begun—in my experience, any process that requires the aesthetician to wear what looks like a SARS mask is usually best avoided. And when those acrylics began to grow out and expose a tell-tale topographic error—my cuticle and natural nail started a good deal lower than the appliqué—I systematically pried all of them off with a safety pin (more fun and less painful than it sounds), only to reveal nails that were more damaged than before. I elected to grow up, accept my forever-short nails, and just hoped to keep them “neat.” I learned to favor nude polishes (elongating!), and the fact that a lot of women I consider very chic never had particularly elaborate manicures, or for that matter, particularly long nails.

Back to the present: I have friends with good nails and great manicures. I am constantly exposed to intricate, delicate, generally non-tacky and fun nail art—Piet Mondrian's iconic Broadway Boogie Woogie on the fingers of another backstage reporter, 3-D fruit salads, airbrushed skylines, snakeskin overlays and jewels and sequins—and jealousy has become an issue. But I've also heard horror stories about Shellac and nail damage from over-buffing, of natural nails smothered by the fake substances applied on top of them. Time passes, I get my hopes up every time I seem to be making headway with my nail strengtheners, and then another split damns it all to hell. Then, “Try CalGel,” a friend told me like a secret. “They’re low-odor, and they let your nails breathe. Go to Sakura. They’re basically wizards.” I did my research on gel manicures, and the thinness of the layered gels and the promise of flexibility and protection. So, I went to see the wizards, the wonderful wizards of nails.

Though I'm no authority on the matter, I expect that there comes a time in most of our lives when we have to face the fact that the image we hold of ourselves may not be, in fact, the truth. I admit that when I arrived at Sakura, which is very clean, very calming and famed for their CalGel manicures, I struggled with my initial feelings of superiority. At first, I spotted a woman with her fingers wrapped in tin foil, furiously attempting to work her iPhone. You see, I’m low-maintenance. I’m no-makeup makeup. I’m  all about (relatively) healthy living and getting your hands dirty. I just want a manicure that I won’t wreck in five minutes. I am not fussy Miss Tin-Man-Fingers over there. At Sakura, I am presented with tea and a plastic tray full of what look like disembodied nails in a variety of shades, half of which are chunky glitter. I ask for nude, and everyone looks dejected. There are other trays—day-old Valentine’s Day-inspired pink and red hearts, trays of pearl- and rhinestone-encrusted ruby nails, peach and turquoise ones scrolled with gold wire. These are too advanced for me, I try to explain to the aesthetician, who smiles pityingly and leads me to a raised platform to soak my feet. It occurs to me that I could fake an emergency, be overly apologetic, duck out, and just try another type of protective topcoat. I opt to be adventurous in the name of beauty (!), avoid making eye contact with the girl with the tin foil, and attempt to read Elle Japan.

And, dear readers, I did it. In a little over an hour, I got ten fingers and ten toes of rock-hard, chip/flake/smudge- and probably bomb-proof, UV-cured (for this part, I slathered myself in SPF-fortified hand cream, and offered it to everyone nearby, in case you’re wondering), and strong-looking nails that appear totally natural and healthy. They're nude with gold-glitter tips. (Once you start to concede territory in the area of nail-enhancement, I think you'll find, it's hard to stop.) I thought the design looked both relatively subtle and appealingly regal, until I met my sister for dinner, and she suggested that I had “engagement fingers,” which, she explained, is when women who are anticipating marriage proposals get sparkly manicures so as to draw attention to their hands. But anyway, it’s now been two weeks, and, like Edith Piaf sang, Non, Je ne regrette rien. The grow-out has been subtle (thank you, nude color!) and painless. In fact, I have a follow-up appointment this week, which I am certain will involve some tin foil on my fingers. And I don’t even mind. I like to think it's because I’ve grown—even if my nails haven't.

—Alessandra Codinha

CalGel Facts: 

-According to the company, CalGel is a soak-off, gas-permeable gel that doesn’t interfere with nail-bed metabolism. It can be used on tips or as a natural overlay, is notably flexible, and is available in over 100 shades.

-For maintenance, you should avoid overly acidic products (e.g., cleaning agents), excess heat, ink/newspaper/paint, and excess sun exposure. For shine, you can remove the top coat with Calcleanse or another non-acetone polish remover, and apply another top coat to re-up the luster factor. Daily cuticle oil application is highly recommended.

To find a salon that uses CalGel near you, here's a guide.

Photos by Elizabeth Brockway.

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  • Paulina

    Well, they do look natural, nice and aesthetic :) I used to have very strong and fast-growing nails but I'm having problems with them now... I guess we don't have such calgel salon in Warsaw, unfortunately. I can only count on some nail-hardeners and conditioners.


  • Bonnie Clyde
  • http://glitterandgapske.blogspot.com/ Alyssa Gapske

    I've been wondering about cal-gel! I'll have to give it a try. I'm sick of my nails chipping so fast!


  • Lauren

    I absolutely love gel polish. I don't believe I have tried CalGel specifically. I will see if they offer it near me because it sounds like a great brand based on your review. I love that gel nails make my nails stronger. I usually do a French, nude or just a clear coat on top. I tend to not get too fancy with my nails. This makes growing them out so much easier. Often you can hardly see the line.

    I also really like that you can paint over gel polish. If you want bright fun nails for a night you have that option. The gel stays in tact even through removal of the polish on top.

    I'm glad you have found the joys of gel polish!


  • Kattttt

    The first half of this article made me feel a bit queasy (split nails, buffed-too-thin nails... am I the only one who almost can't read that stuff?), but the end result is really, really pretty. I didn't know there were gels available that don't give those weird bulbous nails. What I really want to know, though, is the brand of the hand cream. I've been looking for one with spf for years!

    • ITGAlessandra

      Apologies-- I am often very literal when it comes to the less pretty side of beauty. I guess it comes from years of having to deal with broken nails! But very glad you like the end result! Deborah Lippman's Rich Girl hand cream comes with SPF 25, is pretty lovely. xx

      • Kattttt

        Thank you both, I'll have to check them out - they're even available in my country, that's practically fated. I am (weirdly specifically) a wimp when it comes to nail-issues, but I appreciate your writing a lot and feeling a bit ill definitely wont stop me reading!

    • pkb

      Clinique and L'Occitane also do hand creams with SPF :)

  • Guest

    I do Shellac at home. No buffing required and I bought everything from Amazon. I use a "nude" color and once it's done, I put my regular nail polish over it. I remove that with non-acetone remover and can change my polish whenever I like. Usually 2-3x/wk. (I'm a nail polish addict and fairly high maintenance, too. And I happily own that.)The Shellac comes off once every two weeks. My nails have never looked better. I'm thrilled.

  • Aparnaa

    Anyone know - does CalGel have that same painful post-removal peeling situation? I swear, I just grew out my post-Shellac nails (strong nice nails turned into 6 months of peeling) and while I loooove the idea of perfect nails for weeks, I loathe the idea of having to let my nails grow out again.

    • Calgel Srbija

      Aparnaa, no, CalGel does not have that same painful post - removal peeling situation. In fact, your nails after this treatman are the same as before, even better :)

  • http://twitter.com/LocalAndOpulent Lesley O.

    I love a manicure that gives me an excuse not to clean!

    A new outfit post on 70s style is up on Local & Opulent.


  • ClosetCravings

    Adore the nude and glitter-tip nails. While I really love a pretty manicure, I often can't be bothered. I like to throw on Perfect Formula's sheer pink gel coat to keep nails pretty and strong.
    Satisfy Your Cravings For Celebrity Style and All Things Stylish and Sweet

  • lynnsay

    I've used CalGel nails before, and thought they were great, but then I tried CND Shellac. It is far better! Lasts a lot longer and the finish is a lot better in my opinion!


  • Guest

    Your nails look great! Reminds me of a Sally Singer mani I once saw.

  • http://twitter.com/Michelle_LLA Michelle

    Love the nude with gold tips! Also, love the above the knuckle ring :)

  • sarah

    apologies in advance but i think this looks like you have dirty fingernails especially from a distance. maybe it's just the shot. ?

  • marshmellows

    love Sakura, but for my basic Calgel but the high cost keeps me from going back. however they are skilled skilled artisans.

  • ITGAlessandra

    That would be the mignon in gold! x

  • JoyceMara

    there are places that use LED, so don't need to worry about toxic UV!

  • Maria

    My nail technician files my nails before and after removing my calgel is that right. I am always breaking my nail even wil calgel

  • http://virtualclinic365.blogspot.com/2014/02/10-beauty-tips.html Ahad Ammar

    I had shellac on my nails by a professional,but had them removed at a walk in shop. They have ruined my nails.They filed off the polish ,so my nails are very very thin and brittle. I always had good strong nails. I went back to complain,but they didn't seem to understand me or maybe they didn't want to. Will never have them done again. This post described pros and cons of shellac nail polish very nicely. Thanks

  • Calgel Srbija

    Hello. I'm from Calgel Serbia and we are the official distributors for our country. I love this story because it's true story that happened to all of us in one moment in past!
    When you find out about Calgel, there's no turning back and it can not be better than this! :)