How To Remove Your Gel Nail Polish Manicure At Home

A foolproof step-by-step guide to getting it all off without damaging your nails.
How To Remove Your Gel Nail Polish Manicure At Home

(Photo: iStock)

A gel nail polish manicure gives us weeks of chip-free wear and a chic, ultra-glossy finish, but removing it is a painstaking process. Because gel nail polish is cured under a UV light, it dries down to a much harder finish than regular air-dried lacquer—which means your regular nail polish remover just won't cut it.

Gel nail polish removal is often better left to the pros, but if you want to take the matter into our own hands (ah!), we've got you covered. With the right tools and a lot of patience, removing gel nail polish from salon brands such as Shellac, CND and OPI can be done in around 30 minutes from the comfort of your couch.

We asked Leeanne Colley, owner of Toronto-based salon Tips Nail Bar, to spill her secrets on how to make your gel manicure last longer—and how to remove gel nail polish at home without damage.

How to extend the life of your gel polish manicure

The use of UV lights has prompted people to question the safety of gel manicures, which have recently been linked to increased risks of cancer and allergic reactions. The good news? With the proper precautions, you can still enjoy your long-lasting manis. One of the best ways to mitigate the risks associated with gel manicures is to get your nails done less often.

If your gel polish manicure has seen better days, there are a few clever hacks that can extend its life until your next salon visit, or until you can get your hands on everything you need to safely remove it at home.

First, don’t pick at the chips or peel off gel polish, as tempting as it may be. “Our nails are made up of about 50 layers of keratin,” explains Colley. “Gel polish adheres to the keratin on your nails and picking at it actually takes layers off of your nail, which creates damage.”

To save a chipped mani, Colley suggests filing down the nail to smooth down the affected spot, so you’re not tempted to pick at it. If the chip is still showing, match the colour to a nail polish shade you have at home to cover the spot.

Colley also shares a brilliant tip to extend the life of a grown out gel polish manicure. First, file your nails to your desired length. (She recommends avoiding nail clippers, as it can create tiny cracks in the polish.) Then, put that forgotten bottle of glitter polish to good use. “Just drop the glitter in the area around your cuticle to give it a nail art effect and fill in the area that's grown out,” she says.

Ready to say goodbye to your chipped, grown out manicure? Here’s a simple step-by-step guide to removing gel nail polish at home without damaging your nails.

Gel manicure removal 101

Step 1: Gather your tools


The good news is that you most likely already have (almost) everything you need to take off gel polish in your beauty stash and kitchen drawers. If you don’t, you can find each item (or pre-made kits) at your local drugstore, or buy them online and have them delivered straight to your door.

To take off your gel polish, you’ll need a coarse nail file, paper towels, cotton balls or cotton pads, aluminum foil, acetone polish remover, a cuticle pusher (either stainless steel or an orangewood stick), a nail buffer and cuticle oil (or a few drops of your favourite face oil).

Before you start, cut up 10 small squares of paper towel (large enough to cover each nail) and 10 small strips of aluminum foil (large enough to wrap around your fingertips to keep the paper towel squares in place).

Step 2: File off the shiny top coat


Before you reach for the acetone, gently sand down the shiny top layer off all ten nails with a coarse nail file. This step breaks down the gel seal and allows the acetone to seep through the polish and start lifting the colour and base coat.

How To Remove Your Gel Nail Polish Manicure At Home

You want to scratch the shiny surface—but not entirely remove the polish underneath. “When you start seeing nail polish colour on your file, that's when you should stop,” says Colley. If you sand all the way down to your natural nail, you run the risk of damaging it.

Step 3: Soak your nails in acetone wraps


Once you’ve buffed the shiny top coat off every nail, it’s time for an acetone nail polish remover soak. At this stage, you may be tempted to try to speed things up by soaking both hands at once, but Colley advises against it. “The biggest tip is to just be patient,” she says. “Do one hand at a time.”

Start by saturating a piece of paper towel, cotton pad or cotton ball in acetone. Here, more is more. “You want it to be almost dripping wet,” says Colley.

How To Remove Your Gel Nail Polish Manicure At Home

Next, place the acetone-soaked cotton ball over your nail and wrap it tightly in a square of aluminum foil. “Acetone evaporates, so if the package that's wrapped around your nail isn't as tight as you can get it, air is getting in there, fighting against the acetone and slowing it down,” she continues. Repeat the process for each finger of the hand you’re working on.

Alternatively, you can pour the acetone in a bowl and soak your fingers directly in it. However, Colley prefers the wrap technique, as it’s easy and mess-free.

Step 4: Scrape off the gel nail polish


Let your nails soak for about 15 minutes, then remove the wrap from one finger. The gel polish should be lifting and look like it’s falling off the nail.

A cuticle pusher for an article on how to remove gel nail polish at home.

Next, use the stainless steel or wooden cuticle pusher to gently scrape the polish from the nail bed, working on one finger at a time. If the gel polish isn’t lifting easily, place the foil wrap back on (making sure the acetone-soaked paper towel, cotton ball or cotton pad is lined up with your nail) and wait another 5 minutes, suggests Colley.

Repeat the process for each nail, then move on to the other hand. This is the perfect time to catch up on your latest Netflix obsession or have a guilt-free scroll through Instagram.

Step 5: Buff your nails


Once each nail is mostly polish-free, use the gentler side of a buffing block to smooth out any remaining roughness. “The purpose of the buffer is to remove any last little bits that are on your nails and give you a smooth finish,” says Colley.

How To Remove Your Gel Nail Polish Manicure At Home

Step 6: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate


Acetone is notoriously drying on both nails and skin, so now is the perfect time to give your hands some TLC. “The next step would be to use a cuticle oil [on],” suggests Colley. If you don’t have cuticle oil at home, she recommends using coconut oil or a few drops of your favourite face oil to keep your tips moisturized.

How To Remove Your Gel Nail Polish Manicure At Home

Whether you decide to give your nails a polish break or jump straight into a colourful at-home mani, Colley says moisture is the key to strong, healthy nails. “A lot of our clients use cuticle oil every night as a way of extending their manicure. It creates a flexibility between the nail and the polish,” she continues. “Adding hydration and moisture to your nails and skin is one of the best things you can do.”

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