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The best gel nail polishes

(Image credit: Unsplash)

One of the best things about gel nail polish is it’s just so strong. Unlike your average nail lacquer, there’s no way a gel mani is getting chipped. It’s virtually indestructible, impossibly glossy and long lasting so ideal for anyone who loves having pristine nails for weeks at a time.

Better still, gel nails have come a long way since their salon debut and now you can get your own home gel kits to use at home, complete with a dinky LED curing machine (no need for those harmful UV rays) and a wide range of colours to choose from.

Try to find gel manicure formulas free from the ‘toxic trio’ (carcinogens that are present in many polishes): Formaldehyde, toluene, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). Our top pick, ORLY Gel FX is free from 12 of the most harmful chemicals commonly found in nail polish, including the ‘toxic trio’. It’s also vegan, cruelty free and comes in a fantastic range of high gloss colours.

Remember, never pick at your manicure! When you are ready to remove it, you’ll need to wrap nails in foil and soak in acetone. Obviously this is a pretty harsh process, so indulge in a skin and cuticle treatment after.

If you love the look and long-wear of a gel nail polish manicure but don’t want the faff of curing, check out some of the fantastic gel-like options available for a high-shine finish and full week of wear.

(Image credit: Amazon)

ORLY Gel FX

12-free gel polish perfect for use with an LED or UV lamp

Free from 12 toxic ingredients
Cruelty free and vegan
Available in an incredible range of 71 shades
Nail-nourishing formulas including antioxidant vitamins A and E and pro-vitamin B5
None

The ORLY range in a mainstay in most high-end nail salons thanks to the product’s exceptionally glossy, perfect finish, long-wear and formulas that take care of you inside and out.

It’s not often you come across a gel polish free from so many toxic ingredients (12!) that still stands up to the test, but ORLY does it with ease. We tested at home using the ‘Builder in a Bottle’ intro kit (plus an LED light, which doesn’t come included) and found it easy to apply despite it being quite thick. Once cured (in an incredible 45 seconds!) the shiny, faultless and very clear finish stayed put without a scratch for two weeks.

Although a pricey option, we feel the ORLY gel nail polishes are worth it. Others we tested at a lower price point yellowed with curing and time and did not last as long or remove well. There’s a reason ORLY remains a salon favourite!

(Image credit: Amazon)

Essie gel polish

Gel-like polish with long-lasting high-gloss finish without the need for a curing lamp

Really easy to apply and remove
Beautiful range of classic colours available (the royal favourite!)
Clear, soft gloss finish with hard-wearing protection
Needs the additional ‘top coat’ product for a chip-free finish

The Essie brand is famed for being the royal favourite (Queen Elizabeth II reportedly ONLY wears Essie Ballet Slippers and asks Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle to do the same!), so it was unsurprising to find that their gel-like nail polish produced wonderful results.

The first thing to understand about gel-like polished, rather than gel, is that they will never last as long as they aren’t cured. They’re more like a lacquer with a gel topcoat finish, but if you don’t mind having to re-do your nails every week as opposed to ever 2-3 weeks, this makes a handy alternative.

We found that the overall appearance of the Essie gel polish did look very much like the quality you expect from a gel manicure, although with a softer, subtler shine (which some of our testers actually preferred). However, it was thinner going on, so two coats were needed, plus the addition of a top coat for longer wear. Without the top coat this polish lasted 5-7 days; with, it lasted up to two weeks. It also comes off easily, with a regular nail varnish remover.

(Image credit: Amazon)

Nails INC Gel Effect nail polish

Quick drying gel-effect polish with in-built nail care

No need for UV/LED curing or soak off
Uses plasticizer technology for plumped, glossy nails
Contains aldehyde, zinc and calcium to boost production of keratin
Lasts up to two weeks, but only if you apply a few coats
None

Out of all the gel-like polishes we tried, this one looked most like the real deal. Ultra glossy finish, vibrant, non-streaky colour and a thick look reminiscent of acrylics or cured gel nails (we imagine due to the plasticizer technology, designed to eliminate imperfections). This really does give the look of a gel manicure without the hassle.

The polish went on smooth, but we did find that for best results two or three coats were needed. Although, after that there was no need for an additional top coat product. We were impressed with how quickly they dried (just a couple of minutes) and we are fans of the particularly wide brush that the bottle comes with for a quick, even spread of colour.

Again, as a gel-like formula rather than gel, there is no need for a curing light with this one.

 

(Image credit: Amazon)

Gelish Soak Off Gel Polish

Soak off gel polish with new signature dome brush for perfect application

Very long lasting with stay time of over 3 weeks!
Soaks off easily in 10-15 minutes
New dome brush available in latest releases, designed for perfect application
Needs to be cured using LED or UV light (sold separately)

We found the colour coverage of Gelish soak off polish to be exceptional – just one or two coats without a top coat had nails looking even, bold and glossy, just like a pro had done it! The price you pay for this though is that the formula is very thick, so this is best suited to those who feel they have good brush control and technique. There’s no room for error!

This gel polish cured under LED light in one-minute flat and once set, the colours (both vibrant tones, sparkles and natural hues) looked absolutely lovely.

We loved the new dome brush as it helped get just the right amount of polish onto the nail without splurging everywhere! And if you’re one for getting creative with your nails, you’ll really enjoy the selection of Gelish Art Form too.

(Image credit: Amazon)

Sally Hansen Miracle Gel

Two-step gel polish for a salon finish at home for a fraction of the price

Smoothing finish for weak or ridged nails
Lasts up to two weeks without curing or base coat
Very affordable product – the cheapest one we tried!
Top coat needs to be purchased separately

If you’re looking for an affordable product that still provide high-end results, look no further than Sally Hansen Miracle Gel. We were impressed at how good our nails looked – smooth and healthy, even if they weren’t really underneath!

To get the even, glossy coverage we look for in a gel manicure we found that we needed to apply about three coats, and then a top coat to follow. But if you have the time and patience to do that, what you’re left with will be worth the wait.

You do need to purchase the top coat separately which bumps up the price somewhat, but once on you can expect that colour to last for at least a week. And when you’re ready for a change? Simply take it off with your regular nail polish remover and cotton pads.