Done incorrectly, removing gel polish can wreak havoc on your nails. Here's how to do it the *right* way.
There's no denying that the benefits of a gel manicure are quite nice: no dry time, long-lasting color and shine, never having to worry about chips. (Psst: Here are the best gel polishes that stand up to your toughest workouts.) But if you've ever been left with weak, brittle nails once that pretty polish comes off, it's likely that the removal process was to blame. "If it's not done correctly, it can be incredibly damaging to your nails," explains Lauren Berkovitz, CEO Of Lauren B. Beauty. "Sometimes, even the pros at the salon are doing it improperly," she adds. Here, she shares the step-by-step removal technique that won't leave you with nasty-looking nails.
1. Resist the urge to peel.
Trust us, we totally get it: As soon as you start to see a little corner of color start to lift off, it can be oh-so tempting to start to pick the whole thing off. But whatever you do, don't! Every time you peel off the polish, you're removing layers of the nail, weakening it and creating an irregular surface, says Berkovitz. (Next up, 5 Dos and Don'ts for Strong, Healthy Nails.)
2. Load up on cuticle oil.
The only way to remove a light-cured gel polish is with acetone (more on that next), which is incredibly drying to both the skin and nail, explains Berkovitz. To counteract those effects, start hydrating even before you begin removal. She suggests loading up on cuticle oil--applying it at least twice daily—to moisturize and hydrate the cuticle, skin around your nail, and the nail matrix (located under the cuticle, at the base of the nail, this is where cells are produced and growth begins). Try CND Solar Oil Nail and Cuticle Conditioner ($8.50; ulta.com), or hit the kitchen; coconut oil is another great option.
3. File first.
Once it comes time to remove, use a coarse file to file off the top layer of color. This breaks down the top barrier that's been created by the polish and will allow the acetone to better penetrate and work more effectively, points out Berkovitz.
4. Reach for acetone.
While we're all about natural polish removers, when it comes to gels, acetone is the only thing that will do the trick. Soak a cotton pad in pure acetone and apply on each nail, being careful to place it so that it just touches the nail, and not the skin around it, says Berkovitz. Wrap each finger in a small piece of tin foil; it will help ensure that the acetone stays in complete contact with the nail. Leave on for 10-20 minutes.
5. Use an orange stick.
Lift up the tin foil and cotton pad. Once the polish looks soft and is lifting off the nail, you can gently push away any excess (key word, gently!). Steer clear of metal pushers, since these can apply too much pressure, warns Berkovitz, who suggests using an orange stick instead. One to try: Tweezerman Manicure/Pedicure Sticks ($2.49; ulta.com). Again, if the polish has soaked in the acetone for long enough, it should come off on its own, without requiring excessive force on your end. Once all the polish is gone, wash your hands with a gentle cleanser.
6. Practice nail rehab
Even if you followed all these steps correctly, your nails and skin will still be dry from the acetone, so now's the time to give them a little extra TLC. Load up on cuticle balm, and apply a nail growth serum or treatment. Look for one with ingredients like biotin, peptides, and antioxidants, like the Lauren B. Beauty Nail Growth Serum ($75; laurenbbeauty.com). "If your nails are in fairly good shape, go polish-free for a few days after removing a gel manicure, but if they're soft and brittle, skip polish for at least a week," advises Berkovitz.