How to Remove Your Gel Mani (Without Wrecking Your Nails)
Main image – Sonjalekovic/Stocksy
We’ve all been there – your gel manicure is starting to chip, and it’s hard to stop yourself from peeling it off. But don’t do it! Gel polish really is different to regular polish and needs extra care to be removed without damaging your own nails.
While it’s always best practice to have gel nails removed by a pro, there are a few ways to do it from home without having to schedule a trip to the nail salon.
A quick glance at social media though tells me that, despite all the information out there on removing your gels, loads of us are still really struggling with the removal process.
That’s why we’ve spoken to pro nail artist Syreeta Aaron and Frenchies Modern Nail Care founder Stephanie Coffey to troubleshoot *exactly* how to remove your gel manicure from home both with and without acetone, even if you normally struggle.
The tools you’ll need to remove your gel manicure
Coffey says, “Many people struggle with removing gel nails at home due to a lack of proper tools and technique. The most common mistake is rushing the process, leading to potential nail damage.”
That’s ok though, just make sure to get the right tools, take your time, and follow the experts’ advice below.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 180-grit nail file
- Acetone-based nail polish remover, dish soap or olive oil
- Orange stick
- Nail buffer
- Cuticle oil
- Cotton balls (optional)
- Aluminum foil (optional)
- Petroleum jelly (optional)
- Warm towel (optional)
How to remove your gel nails with acetone
There are a few different ways to remove your gel mani, but using acetone remains the quickest, most reliable way to do it. Here’s how to do it safely, according to the pros.
Step 1: File your topcoat
Similar to removing nail wraps, the first thing you need to do when removing a gel manicure is to file off the topcoat, according to Aaron.
- Coffey adds, “We recommend using a 180-grit nail file to gently file the topcoat. This grade is abrasive enough to break through the topcoat without damaging the nail underneath.”
- Since the next step will be soaking your nails in acetone, skipping the filing step will make the whole process less effective. Aaron explains, “If the topcoat is not filed off the acetones cannot penetrate to the colour based polish.”
- But how much do you file down? Coffey explains, “You’ll know the topcoat is sufficiently filed when the glossy finish turns matte.”
- Overdoing it can harm your nails though. She adds, “It’s important to file just enough to remove the shine, maintaining the integrity of the natural nail.”
PRO TIP: You might want to reconsider if you were thinking of using an electronic file for this step. “We generally don’t recommend using electronic files at home due to the risk of damaging the nail bed. Manual filing with the correct grit is safer for non-professionals,” says Coffey.
Step 2: Soak your nails
Once the top coat is filed, the next step is to soak your nails in a small bowl of acetone-based polish remover.
- Aaron explains, “Depending on the thickness of the nail, soaking can take anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes.”
- She warns though that “the lower the acetone percentage of a remover the more it can prolong the process”.
- The expert cautions against getting acetone on your fingers themselves, since it’s a strong solvent. She says, “The amount of acetone should only cover your fingernails.”
PRO TIP: “Applying a thin layer of petroleum jelly around the nails can protect your skin from the drying effects of acetone. However, ensure it doesn’t get on the nail itself as it can hinder the removal process,” says Coffey.
Alternative Step 2: Use cotton balls and foil
If you want more precision, you can also place acetone-soaked cotton balls on each of your nails. Aaron recommends, “placing a cotton ball just on the nail itself and wrapping it with a square sheet of aluminium foil just large enough to wrap each finger”.
- This is a good choice for those with sensitive skin, as it minimises contact with acetone and skin irritation. You can still use Vaseline on the skin around your nails if you’re concerned though.
- Nail clips- those cute little claw clips you often see influencers using- can help too if you’re going for the foil wrap option, according to Coffey. “They help keep the cotton in place and ensure that the acetone works effectively on the gel polish,” she explains.
- Beware the heated nail pads you see on social media though, says Coffey, which “can unevenly distribute heat and potentially harm the skin and nail.”
PRO TIP: Instead of using a heat pad on your gel nails “we suggest using a warm towel wrap if you need to aid the removal process, as it’s gentler and more controlled,” Coffey says.
Step 3: Remove any further polish
After soaking, use a cotton ball and additional acetone to wipe away any residue or residual polish from your nails.
- You may also need to use an orange wood stick or other cuticle tools to get rid of any stubborn areas.
- If you find it difficult to remove the gel polish, try soaking your hands for an additional 5 minutes.
- Avoid metal tools though as Coffey recommends a “wooden or plastic nail scraper. These materials are less likely to damage the natural nail compared to metal scrapers.”
PRO TIP: If you don’t have a scraper or orange stick “use your own fingers to push back the cuticles. Just make sure your hands and nails are clean first and we recommend applying a warm washcloth to the fingers to help soften the cuticles before pushing them back,” says Coffey.
Step 4: Rinse with soap
Once you’ve wiped away all the polish, it’s time to give your nails a proper rinse in warm water and gentle soap. This will help to get rid of the acetone and any other remaining build-up on your nails.
Step 5: Treat your nails
Now, you’re ready to prep your nails for your next manicure! Lightly buff your nails before massaging cuticle oil onto each one to add some moisture after the removal process. Treat yourself to a hand cream to keep the skin on your hands healthy too.
How to remove gel nails without acetone
If you have sensitive skin or don’t have any acetone to hand, there are some alternative approaches to remove your gel nail polish.
Remove your gels with non-acetone nail polish remover:
Though not as strong, acetone-free nail polish remover can help to remove some of the layers of a gel manicure.
- You’ll still need to file off your topcoat first and it may take longer to soak your nails.
- It may take a long time for the polish to soften and lift off the nail. Start with 15-20 minutes and see if the polish has softened. If it hasn’t, soak them again for another 5-10 minutes.
- If you’re struggling to get remaining polish off, using an orange stick to push off the polish may help.
Remove your gels with dish soap/olive oil soak:
- If you want to take a more natural approach to your gel manicure removal, file off your topcoat before soaking your nails in a bowl of warm water mixed with a few drops of dish soap and either salt or olive oil.
- This mixture helps to break down the polish while also conditioning your nails and cuticles. Soak your nails for 10-15 minutes, then follow the standard removal steps.
No matter which method you choose, it’s important to have a little patience and to be gentle with your nails.
How salons remove gel polish
If you’ve never had your gel nails removed in a salon before, just know that removal methods can differ between salons and nail technicians, but the basic steps are usually the same.
Typically, the technician will start by filing down the top coat and the first layers of the gel polish before soaking your nails in acetone.
Once softened, your nail tech will either use an orange stick or an electric drill with a buffing head to make sure that every layer of polish is removed.
Can a gel manicure ruin your nails?
Ok, but can a gel manicure ruin your nails? Like any type of manicure, gel polish can damage your nails if it’s not applied or removed correctly. This is also true for acrylic nails, Shellac, and even dip powder, as these all require special steps and tools to apply and remove.
However, it’s not always the actual polish that causes the damage. It often comes down to improper technique during the application, removal, or even daily care. For example, picking at the polish or filing too aggressively can cause chips and damage to the top layer of the nail, making them more prone to breakage.
“Gel nails can weaken your nails if not applied or removed correctly,” Coffey agrees.
That’s it! Now you know how to remove gel polish at home by yourself without having to go through the hassle of a salon visit.
Remember though, if you’re really struggling to remove your polish, a nail tech can help. And even if the price of getting them removed professionally seems a bit steep, just think of all those beautiful designs you’ll be able to enjoy in future by preserving the health of your nails.
Meet the expert
Syreeta Aaron is a pro nail artist and brand educator for the globally-famous nail polish brand LeChat. She has had a nail tech career spanning 17 years.
Stephanie Coffey is founder and CEO of Frenchies Modern Nail Care, a fast-growing US-based, non-toxic nail salon franchise.