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Here's the right way to remove a gel manicure at home, according to the pros

gel manicure
Here's exactly how to remove a gel mani at homeKlimenko Oksana - Getty Images

If you haven't taken a trip to your local nail salon in a few weeks, we're betting your sturdy gel manicure is probably in need of a refresh. Aside from the unkept look of polish grow out, having old gel on for too long can strain the health of your natural nails. Weight imbalances between existing polish and your natural nails can ultimately leave them with lifted, jagged edges, and feeling more frail or damaged then they should.

Your best bet? Remove it as soon as possible. And to make the process a breeze, we've tapped top nail experts like Sarah Gibson Tuttle, CEO and founder of nail brand Olive & June, and celebrity nail artist Julie Kandalec, for pro-tips on how to remove gel polish safely and easily from the comfort of home. With a just couple of tools and a little patience, you’ll have healthy natural nails in no time.


The benefits of a gel manicure

While regular manicures typically don't make it past a week without a few chips, gel manicures are built to last, as they're cured and hardened under an LED light to avoid chipping. And since these manicures are long-lasting, you can also cut down on the number of visits you make to your local nail salon—which may eventually lead to return on your investment.

Does gel polish ruin your nails?

When applied too frequently, gel polish has the potential to weaken your nails overtime. To prevent unnecessary damage, we recommend taking a breather between gel applications. Nail care staples, like strengtheners and cuticle oils can also be beneficial in helping your natural nails maintain their firmness.

How salons take off gel polish

To quickly remove gel polish, most nail salons apply acetone-soaked cotton balls directly to your nails and wrap them in aluminum foil. If residual polish isn't easily removable after a 10 minute waiting period, your nail tech may also opt to use professional tools, like a nail drill, for a clean finish.

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Elena Safonova - Getty Images

How to remove gel nail polish at home

We know it can be tempting to pick and peel off your gel polish once it starts looking worn. But while the satisfaction of a freeing your hands from a worn-in look only lasts mere moments, the possible damage you can inflict on your nails could take weeks to repair.

1. File away

Don't overthink it: The process of removing gel polish at home looks almost exactly the same as how it goes as the salon. First, you're going to want to grab a fresh nail file and start by carefully filing away just the top coat seal.

"I recommend using a medium 180 grit file to gently remove as much of the top coat as you can," Kandalec says. "You know you've removed enough of the topcoat when the colour fades and finish becomes dull." Be careful not to file off all of your lingering polish as doing so can also cause nail damage.

2. Soak it off

Now for the step that will test your patience. Place a cotton ball or pad in acetone on each of your nails, then wrap the tip of your finger in foil to hold the ball in place. "Acetone evaporates quickly," Kandalec notes. "The biggest mistake that leads to gel not coming off completely is not soaking the cotton enough."

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, using plastic wrap is another great option for removal, as it creates a tighter seal than foil, so the acetone is less likely to drip. Repeat on all 10 nails. Then, let your nails soak for for about 10-to-15 minutes, letting them go longer if the polish doesn't easily slide off. You'll know the acetone has fully removed the gel when the polish looks lifted from the nail. Tuttle says if you want to expedite the process (and make the experience more spa-like), wrap your hands in a warm towel or a heating pad to further loosen the gel. "Acetone needs heat to work properly," celebrity nail artist Elle Gerstein adds.

If you don't have acetone, don't fret. Repeat the same filing step, but instead of soaking your nails in acetone-doused cotton, place your hands in bowl of warm water, dish soap, and a teaspoon of salt for 20-to-30 minutes. This should soften the gel enough so you can easily remove the polish from the nail bed. Another pro tip? Add cuticle oil into your soapy solution for extra hydration.

3. Remove gently

If your polish doesn't easily slide off after the first two steps, grab a fresh acetone-soaked cotton ball and place it on the nail for a few more minutes. Working on one nail at a time, use a careful twisting-and-squeezing motion to pull off the foil. You can also use the remainder of acetone from each cotton ball to wipe your nails totally clean.

4. Use a tool

For leftover polish that needs a little more elbow grease to remove, grab an orange stick (never a metal tool, which can damage the nail) and softly scrape away the gel towards the top of your finger—never back and against the grain of the nail, Kandalec says.

5. Wash your hands

Get rid of polish and file residue by heading to the sink after removing an old manicure. Plus, hand washing makes it easier to see if there's any lingering polish while prepping your nails for the final step.

6. Nourish your nails

While acetone works wonders in removing gel, it can make your nail sensitive and dry. Once all the polish is off, add moisture back to your nail beds with a nourishing oil like Beauty Pie's Cuticle Therapy or CND's Solar Oil. As an added hydration boost, complete your routine with a rich hand cream.

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