What we call “gel polish” is long-lasting UV-light treated nail lacquer that keeps polish durable and vibrant for up to three weeks. And there’s no denying that a gel manicure leaves your nails looking amazing. But if you want to remove those gel nails and change up your polish, you’ll need more than just an everyday nail polish remover.
Gel nails are tough cookies. But for all the DIY manicurists out there, we have a full guide to cleaning up your nail beds and reviving your fingertips right at home. Removing gel nail polish at home is a multi-step process, but it doesn’t need to be a headache if you do it right.
Pre-gel Nail Care
Keep in mind that removing gel nails at home (or in the salon — a lot of places will do it for you) too frequently in a one-month period isn’t super healthy for your nails. Like all nail polish, gel nail polish dehydrates your nails, and can potentially damage the top layer of keratin in your nails, leaving them feeling brittle. Ideally, you should try to treat your nails to a vitamin E oil soak before you go in for a gel manicure, like this vitamin-rich nail and cuticle treatment oil from Sally Hansen. Make sure to stay moisturized, and keep those cuticles clean!
Your at-home gel nail polish removal requires some key ingredients. You’ll need acetone nail polish remover, aluminum foil, a nail file, and cotton balls or rounds. You want to set yourself up a small bowl and maybe a mat for this whole process — it’s gonna take more than a minute or two, so you might as well get comfortable. Make sure you’re by an open window, so the toxic acetone smell doesn’t linger in the air.
Scuff and Soak
Start by scratching and scuffing the heck out of the top shiny layer of gel polish. You want to get them somewhat rough and matte. There are several layers of finish in a gel nail manicure, so don’t be afraid to really get in there; scoring the nails like this is what allows the acetone to penetrate the top coat.
Next comes the acetone. You can protect your cuticles by applying a layer of Vaseline or Aquaphor, so your cuticles don’t get too dried out during the acetone soaking step. Once you’re done that, pour acetone into a small bowl and soak the cotton balls or cotton rounds completely. After they’re all doused in acetone, those bad boys go right onto your nails, covering the whole nail bed.
You can keep those cotton balls in place for the full 15 minutes your nails will need by wrapping them in aluminum foil. Do this one hand at a time, or otherwise you might just fumble with those cottony foil fingers and end up dropping things. Tighten your foil finger caps as needed, and don’t worry if it gets a little warm under the foil — the heat will help relax the gel nails more, making it easier to pry them off later.
After your nails have been thoroughly treated by those acetone-soaked cotton balls, you might be able to push the gel nails right off with your thumb. If possible, it would be better to pry them off with an orange stick. You can get it at the drugstore, along with a nail file and a nail buffer, which would make this whole process look a lot cleaner at the end, or as part of a manicure set, like this gorgeous rose gold one.
When the main coat from each gel nail has been removed, you can buff, scuff, and rub off any remaining flakes. Especially if your gel polish was a vibrant color (maybe you went with a black nail polish, or rocked metallic nails for fall), the residual bits and flakes of acetone and gel polish might look a little ugly, but don’t worry, you won’t damage your nail. At this point, scraping and scuffing is just part of this last stage of removing gel nail polish.
Your nails might look kind of ugly at this point, but all it takes is a gentle, soapy wash to breathe new life into them post-acetone. It helps if your soap has some moisturizing power — we like Apotheke hand soap with essential oils, or the Gardeners liquid hand soap by Crabtree & Evelyn. Acetone will weaken nail beds and dry out your hands, and dry skin can easily get chapped in the winter unless you take special care of it, so follow up by moisturizing! Try an all-purpose balm, or a hand nourishing cream from Shiseido to keep your fingers feeling fresh after removing gel nail polish.