How To Remove A Gel Manicure At Home Safely And Without Freaking Out

All good things must come to an end… here’s how to get gels off as quickly-ish as possible.
Publish date:
May 27, 2014

Recently, I got the longest-lasting gel manicure I’ve ever had at a new nail spot here in New York called Paintbox. The concept is super simple: manicures only (not just gel), and they provide a menu of designs to choose from that changes seasonally. That part is, to me, a real bonus because when you have a photo for inspiration (just like with a haircut), you're more likely to get exactly what you want.

I wanted the glitter-bomb Weekend Update:

The typical lifespan of a gel manicure is two weeks; on my nails, it’s more like eight days before lifting or peeling starts. This Paintbox manicure made it 13 full days before I noticed some lifting at the sidewalls. Not bad, considering I don’t really baby my nails, manicure or no.

A downside to gel manicures is that you can’t touch them up. I do my best to not pick at the gels, but seeing even just a little bit of wear makes the perfectionist in me freak out because I can’t fix it, and at that stage, I just want them OFF. Like, I’ve suddenly realized my underwear is a size too small. Super uncomfortable. GET OFF ME NOW.

Another downside is that you can’t just wipe off the gel with regular polish remover. You have two, well, three choices for taking them off:

A. Peel them off, which, nope, nope, nope. Because you're likely peeling off the top layer of your natural nail with it, leading to weeks of weakened, brittle nails to come.

B. Get them removed at a salon, which, sure, but there’s usually a charge for it if you’re not getting another service. And also, you have to go to a salon, which isn’t always convenient or in the budget.

C. Do it yourself.

I like C, because I'm a handy gal, and it is also the method recommended by my Paintbox nail tech, the lovely Amber Elizabeth.

You will need:

• A placemat or stack of paper towels to work on (I’m using a yoga mat, because what else is it for?)

• Aluminum foil, cut into at least 2x3 inch squares, 10 total (one for each finger)

• Jumbo cotton balls (pulled into pieces that are nail-sized)

• 100% pure acetone (regular nail polish isn’t strong enough)

• An orange stick (way more gentle on the nail than a metal option)

• A dual-sided nail file with a coarse side and fine-grit side (preferably)

• A well-ventilated space (non-negotiable)

• Vaseline (optional)

• Patience (don’t do this if you have to be somewhere in an hour)

Step 1: Using the coarse-grit side of the file, file the tops of your nails so that the shiny top coat is no longer visible. You don’t have to saw at them; just file enough of the gel top coat away to get to the polish underneath.

Step 2: Soak a piece of cotton ball in the acetone and place it on the nail so that the cotton makes contact with the entire nail surface.

Step 3: Pretend like you’re wrapping your fingertip into a shiny metallic burrito. That sounds so weird. Look, just fold the foil around the fingertip so that it anchors the cotton ball firmly on the nail. Repeat until all five fingertips are fully covered. It’s way easier to do with your dominant hand, but still takes a little practice. And unfortunately, you can really only do one hand at a time. I’ll explain why further down.

Step 4: Wait. The longer you leave the acetone on the nail, the easier the whole process will be. If you take it off too soon, it won’t work as well and you will be mad frustrated. This time, I clocked a solid 12 minutes. Anything less than that didn’t seem to do the trick. Your mileage may vary.

Step 5: Start working the orange stick underneath the gel at an edge (you should see separation between the gel and the natural nail at this point) and pop it off the nail. If you’ve done the whole shebang correctly, the gel will come off in one piece (your goal).

Worst-case scenario, you have to work at it a little bit, and the result looks more like a scratch-off lotto ticket, but it should still come off easily. If it doesn't, go back and burrito-finger again. What you don’t want to be doing is scraping the hell out of your nail. This is also why you need a free hand to work with; it’s tempting to want to save time and wrap both hands at once, believe me, but you need an unencumbered paw to maneuver the orange stick and get the gel off as cleanly and evenly as possible, and it can get tricky on your non-dominant hand.

Step 6: Repeat on your other hand. Maybe eat a snack first. Now that I’ve done it a few times, it takes about 20-25 minutes per hand. The first time took more like 45, because I didn’t leave the acetone on for long enough.

Step 7: With the finer-grit side of your nail file, buff away any remaining remnants of gel until the nails feel smooth. Wash your hands in warm soapy water and apply Vaseline to the cuticles (or any emollient lotion) because your fingertips will be super dried out from the acetone bath.

Some additional thoughts:

I’ve heard nail techs say that you get the same result from soaking the nails in a bowl of pure acetone, but I’m not into that because I want as little acetone on my skin as possible. The foil method confines the acetone to the nail area, which is the only place you want it.

Make sure the foil squares are large enough to cover the entire fingertip. If they’re too small, you won’t be able to anchor the cotton ball on the nail--the foil will be too loose, and the polish won't come off.

On that note, prepare the foil squares and the cotton ball pieces ahead of time. Doing it as you go is messy and annoying.

Any tips to add? Anything I missed? Are you a fan of gel nails? Let me know below!