June 28, 2010 -- Gel manicures are all the rage. Customers ordered them 24 percent more last year, according to a "Nails Magazine" survey.
In a gel manicure, a special solution is applied to your nail and then hardened under a UV light for a longer-lasting manicure.
But as with anything new, there's concern that it may not always be safe. We first heard about this issue from our friends at Consumer Reports.
The gel manicure itself seems to be fine, but there are two problems: Some technicians don't do them right, and some nail salons are passing off other procedures as gel manicures when they're really not.
Imagine a life where everyday tasks are a torture. That's the life Jane Ubell-Meyer has been living.
"I'm in terrible pain," Ubell-Meyer, a gel manicure customer, said.
She said her problems started a few months ago, after she got what she thought was a gel manicure.
"Anything that touched my thumb caused an electric shock, whether it was air or water or just touching very gently. I would get an electric charge that went up my thumb, through my elbow and up to my shoulder," she said.
Ubell-Meyer said she went to an orthopedist, a dermatologist, a chiropractor and more, but none of them believed her manicure could be the cause.
"This is now one, two, three, four doctors already, five doctors, and I was getting frustrated," she said.
So what exactly is a gel manicure? It's supposed to go like this:
First, the technician lightly roughens your nails with a file, then brushes an all-in-one gel onto your nails only, not the skin around them.
Next, the gel hardens under a UV lamp, and finally, the technician removes any residue with a cleanser.
But that's not the type of manicure Ubell-Meyer got, she said. Still suffering, at last she found Dr. Orly Avitzur, a neurologist.
"Will it be difficult for you to remove your jacket?" the neurologist asked Ubell-Meyer on a recent visit.
"It's just too difficult. Every time I put my hand in a sleeve I just get spasms and I just..." Ubell-Meyer said.
Avitzur allowed Ubell-Meyer to leave her jacket on. It turns out that the doctor had gotten her first gel manicure the day before Ubell-Meyer came in, and alarm bells had gone off in her head while the manicurist was working on her hands.
"The two major hazards are the actual filing down process of the nail and then subsequently what the chemicals are we often don't know," she said.
Sure enough, Ubell-Meyer said that during her manicure, the electric file slipped and scuffed up her skin. Then the technician dipped her damaged fingers in to a pot of powdered chemicals.
"And that allows the chemicals to actually seep in -- in a way that wouldn't if the skin served as a protective barrier," the doctor noted.
Avitzur said she believes that the chemicals got into the abrasion and migrated, causing nerve damage. What's worse, she said, she doesn't even know what the chemicals were, because what Ubell-Meyer got wasn't a true gel manicure.
"Nine times out of 10, it's the unskilled, uneducated technician that's causing the issue," said Patricia Yankee, head of education at Dashing Diva Corp., which runs nail salons in New York, California, Japan, Kuwait and other countries.
Yankee, a celebrity nail technician, works on people like Rachael Ray, Kate Winslet and Brooke Shields. She showed us the telltale signs of a fake gel manicure.
If the technician mixes glue and powder, that's wrong. They shouldn't dip your finger in anything, either.
"The easiest way to tell if you've gotten a gel manicure is if it has a nice, clear shine to it. If you see anything that looks cloudy and you can't see through it, nine times out of 10 it's been something that's been mixed with a powder and a gel applied over it," Yankee said.
Ubell-Meyer said her manicure was cloudy, but now she's clear on one thing: Never again.
Here are some warning signs to look out for that your gel manicure could harm you:
Your salon uses bottles in unmarked containers.
The products smell unusually strong or have a strange odor.
Your skin is abraded or cut during the procedure.
The instruments used on you are not sterilized.
Your skin or nails hurt during or after the nail service.
The gels do not soak off easily in solvents designed to remove acrylics.
The technician cannot tell you what's in the products.
The salon is not clean.
Licenses for the salon and individual operators are not visibly posted.
You see swelling, redness or other signs of infection.