About a week and a half ago (which somehow feels like a year and a half ago), I shared a tutorial on how to do your own gel manicure at home. I promised at the time that I would also do a post explaining how to safely remove a gel manicure without damaging your natural nails.
Normally I would go at least two full weeks before removing my gel and doing a new manicure, but because we’re all trying to be extra-careful about keeping our hands clean right now, I felt like I already had too much new nail growth to safely stay totally sanitary. Maybe I’m being overly cautious, but I wish I’d cut my nails shorter before I did my last gel manicure. Anyway, I’ve just removed my gel, cut my nails nice and short, and now I’ll share the removal process.
If you’ve had a negative experience with gel nails from a salon, it’s probably because your natural nails were left weak and soft and badly damaged after the gel was removed. In my experience going to a lot of salons over the years, this damage usually occurs when appointments are booked without enough time to allow for proper removal of the existing gel. The result is that nail techs sometimes wind up not allowing enough time for the gel to soften with acetone, and wind up doing a lot of filing and scraping to get the gel off as quickly as possible. That is what winds up damaging your natural nails.
(Of course, you know what also winds up damaging your natural nails, right? PICKING AT YOUR GEL POLISH. Or worse, peeling it off. Yikes! Don’t do that. Please.)
Scuff gel surface
Using a medium-grit nail file (I like 4-sided foam buffing blocks because they have a little more “give” and are easier on your nails), carefully scuff the entire surface of the gel polish. Be very careful not to sand through the polish to your natural nail! You’re not trying to remove the polish, you just want to get the shiny surface off so the acetone can do its job easier and faster.
“Soak” in acetone-based remover
Despite the term “soak-off” being used in relation to gel polish, you’re not going to actually soak your nails in a bowl of remover. (For what it’s worth, I’ve tried actual soaking, and it was not practical or effective—and it wasted a ton of removal solution.) The best method I’ve tried is cotton, soaked in remover, and held in place with a foil wrap. You can absolutely just use a cotton ball and a strip of aluminum foil, but I’ve found that these pre-made foil wraps work even better—and are more cost-effective in the long term. I’ve also tried these clip-caps instead of foil, but in my experience, they’re harder to work with and they allow the cotton to dry out before the solution has enough time to do what it needs to do.
As for the removal solution, if you bought the Gelish starter kit I mentioned in my DIY gel manicure post, it came with a bottle of remover that will do the job well. However, when it eventually runs out, you might want to consider another option—ASP Conditioning Soak Off Solution. I find that it’s much more gentle on my nails and my skin, leaving both feeling hydrated and healthy after use. It also seems to work faster than other solutions I’ve tried.
You can, of course, use any acetone-based nail polish remover (or even just straight acetone, which is what most salons I’ve been to use), but for whatever reason, I’ve found that formulas designed specifically for removing gel polish are both more effective and less damaging. (I’ve also heard that CND Offly Fast works very well, but haven’t tried it myself.)
So! Remover goes on the cotton pad (be generous with the remover—you want the gel to really get soaked with it), the cotton pad goes on your nail, and the pad gets held in place with foil. You can do one hand at a time or both at once—that’s your choice. I personally like to do one hand at a time so I can reuse the foil wraps on the second hand and double the lifespan of the package. Plus, that means I can still use my phone with my free hand.
Now set a timer for THIRTY MINUTES. Yes, really. I know that seems ridiculous, but as I said, I think the main reason why so many people experience natural nail damage after gel removal is that salons just aren’t allowing enough time for the removal solution to work. I find that if I wait a full half hour, I’m able just sort of “lift” the loose gel polish off with a wooden stick—no scraping, no filing, no damage. For me, it’s worth it.
After thirty minutes have passed, take off one of the foil wraps and check to see if the gel is loosened from the nail. Use a wooden stick to gently remove it. If there are any bits of polish still stuck to your nail, wrap it back up and wait another five minutes. That should do it! Repeat for all nails (duh).
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Once all of the polish is removed, I like to give my nails a little love before applying new gel. I coat my cuticles in oil, apply a ton of hand cream, and let it all soak in.
Then I start all over again! You don’t have to, of course. There’s no reason you can’t wait days or weeks or months to wear gel polish again. I like how strong it keeps my nails, though, and how positive it makes me feel about my hands—so I tend to just re-do it right away.
In a future post, I’ll share how to touch-up/refresh an existing gel manicure that might have a chip or two (or just a lot of new growth) without going through the whole removal process!