You may not have had reason to wonder how to remove gel nail polish before, but if you’re currently avoiding your salon and going the DIY nail route instead, it’s important to learn how to do it properly. Spoiler alert: Just ripping off your gel manicure is not a good idea. Everything might appear to be okay to the naked eye, but you actually strip the delicate layers of the nail plate (the hard part of the nail that grows out) when you tear your gel nails off this way, and it can potentially cause permanent damage.
To avoid screwing up your nails, we asked celebrity manicurist Patricia Yankee how to remove gel nail polish at home. Her professional advice to ensure the health of your nails is to head back to your salon for proper removal when it’s safe to do so. But if you can’t or don’t want to make the trip right now, there are a few easy-to-follow steps to get similar results at home.
Step 1: Protect your cuticles.
Acetone—which you’ll need to remove your gels—can wreak havoc on the skin around your nails, so you need to protect your poor cuticles. “Before you soak, protect the surrounding areas with a cuticle oil,” Yankee explains. There’s no need to get a fancy specialty cuticle oil unless you want to. A tried-and-true quick home remedy is Vaseline ($3, Amazon). The petroleum jelly will create a barrier to minimize the acetone’s damage. Aquaphor ($10, Amazon) works too.
Step 2: Loosen up the top layer with a coarse nail file.
The gel topcoat is a tough nearly impermeable layer that seals the color in place—that’s why gel manicures are able to last for weeks instead of days. Scratching the surface with a coarse nail file will help the acetone to penetrate without a hitch. “When filing, apply a light and parallel pressure,” Yankee says, which will help you avoid scratching the nail plate underneath.
Step 3: Soak your nails in acetone using cotton balls and aluminum foil.
Acetone ($5, Ulta) is stronger and more effective than non-acetone nail polish remover, making it exactly what you need to remove your gel nail polish. Drench some cotton balls with the stuff, then hold them in place on your nails by wrapping each finger with aluminum foil. According to Yankee, this traps in heat to help the gel break down faster. Gel polish formulas vary in strength, so the wait time can be anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes. If you don’t get it exactly right, you can always rewrap and keep on soaking.
Yankee’s expert tip: “Sometimes it’s best to do one hand at a time at home. I like to start with the dominant hand to get the toughest part out of the way.” So if you’re a lefty, begin soaking the nails on your left hand, and then your right hand will be a breeze. “It’s a small change, but it makes a huge difference,” she says.
Step 4: Gently scrape away the layers and soak again if needed.
Once you give the acetone time to work its magic, grab the file (or a wooden orange stick) and continue to gently scrape the layers to safely remove the gel polish from your nail. If you’ve soaked long enough, the first few coats will begin to peel off easily.
If you encounter more resistant layers, you’ll need to loosen them up with another acetone soak. Repeat the soaking-and-scraping method until you’ve safely removed all of the color, including the base coat.
Step 5: Wash up and moisturize.
“After you finish soaking in acetone, you want to make sure that you wash thoroughly,” Yankee says. She also suggests putting on another coat of cuticle oil. If you want to get a little fancier than petroleum jelly this time, try the highly rated favorite Maccibelle Cuticle Oil ($7, Amazon), which comes in three different scents: milk and honey, pomegranate, and tea tree–lavender.
Yankee also suggests keeping the habit up for a few days “just to replenish the moisture in your nails,” since acetone can be so harsh.
Bonus: A few products to make your life easier next time.
The process of removing gel nail polish isn’t exactly the hardest thing in the world, but hey, sometimes you want to streamline the whole ordeal even more. There are sets with everything you need to take off your gels, as well as handy products to troubleshoot some of the more annoying parts of the process. Below, find our recommendations for taking your gel removal to the next level.
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