Skip to main content

Back to Basics: How to Remove Gel Nail Polish

We swear, it's not *that* difficult.
Photo: Imaxtree

Photo: Imaxtree

"Basic" may have adapted a negative connotation in recent years, but there's no shame in seeking advice on theoretically simple sartorial conundrums. In our latest column, "Back to Basics," we're here to guide you through life's most common (and important) fashion and beauty concerns.

Here's the thing about gel manicures: Their benefits — a last-through-the-apocalypse staying power and unfaltering shine — are also their downfall. People shy away from gel polish, no matter how many times they've heard about its life-changing powers, because they're so concerned about the removal process. And sure, it takes a little more elbow grease and time to take off a gel manicure. But if you're armed with the right tools (and knowledge), it's totally D.I.Y.-able. Trust us.

Are Gel Manicures Any Safer Than They Were a Few Years Ago?

These Videos of Chrome Nails in Progress are Completely Mesmerizing

We Tested 10 Nail Polish Brands to See Which One Lasts the Longest


A gel manicure should last between 10 days and three weeks, depending on how quickly your nails grow, according to Julie Kandalec, a nail artist and the creative director of Paintbox in New York City. But even if your nails grow slowly and there's not a lot of noticeable re-growth by week three, it's time to reach for the acetone, she says. "The longer the gel is on, the harder it is to remove, [which can] result in damage to the natural nail," she explains. The reason for this is actually a little surprising: "Gel continues to cure just a bit under the sun, even after you leave the salon. So in a sunny location like Florida, I recommend two weeks, maximum, to prevent damage."


Repeat after us: Never, ever peel off gel nail polish. "When you peel your gel off it removes layers of the nail plate. Not having all of those layers intact will prevent your next gel manicure from lasting as long. So continues a vicious cycle," says Kandalec. 

First, gather your supplies: Cotton balls or pads, acetone-based nail polish remover (it's crucial to use a 100 percent acetone formula — any other version likely won't work), a medium-grit nail file, a fine-grit nail file, aluminum foil, a towel, an orangewood stick and cuticle oil.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Then get to work. Here's Kandalec's step-by-step breakdown:

1. Begin by filing the top layer of gel off with a medium-grit nail file. Because topcoat is often non-porous, this step will help the solvent to better penetrate the gel polish.
2. Apply cuticle oil all around the cuticle and finger to protect the skin from the drying effects of acetone.
3. Completely saturate a small piece of cotton in polish remover and place it on the nail. "It should be very wet, almost dripping, since acetone evaporates," says Kandalec.
4. Wrap the finger in a two-inch-by-two-inch square of aluminum foil. "The cheap stuff is best here, since it forms to the finger best," says Kandalec.
5. Wait 15 minutes. No peeking! This is a great time to put on an episode of Broad City to distract yourself.
6. Massage each finger and pull the foil off, working one finger at a time.
7. The polish should easily fall off, but if you need to nudge it a little, grab an orangewood stick to gently scrape away from the cuticle, toward the tip of the nail. "Only use a wooden cuticle stick for this step; metal is too hard and can cause damage," says Kandalec.
8. If there are any bits of polish still remaining on the nail, use a fine (220 grit) file to buff them away.


And while at-home removal is totally doable (try it — it's really not that scary!), Kandalec does point to some benefits associated with having a professional do the job. "Not all gel is the same, and some can be more difficult to remove," she says. "A professional will know how to remove many types and brands of gel, not to mention, they know how not to damage the nail better than someone with an untrained eye."


If your nails do seem especially dry or roughed-up, give your nails a break. "Wait at least three weeks before applying any type of enhancement — gel, acrylic, etc. — again," says Kandalec. She also recommends a strengthening treatment, like CND's Rescue Rxx to help replenish bare nails or an in-salon IBX treatment if you can't imagine going polish-free.

Please note: Occasionally, we use affiliate links on our site. This in no way affects our editorial decision-making.

Sign up for our daily newsletter and get the latest industry news in your inbox every day.