Do-It-Yourself Gel Nails

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Gel polish? Not your grandma’s acrylics. It’s the newest and most popular service on the market. Gel polish is a thinner and more flexible than standard acrylic enhancements, and it’s all the rage right now because it doesn’t chip as easily as regular paint. And you can totally do them yourself and save big-time on trips to the salon. But gel nails have to be done right.

We asked Stephanie Lagery, editor of Nail It! magazine, to break down the truth about gel nails. Get your seat belts on – here’s your exclusive guide to salon-worthy nails without even leaving the house.

True or False?

We asked Lagery to bust or confirm common myths about gel nails:

Gel nails are like concrete and won’t come off.

False. The benefit of gel nails is that, unlike standard nail polish, they won’t chip after a day or two. Their composition allows them to remain shiny and chip-free for two weeks (or more!). But, because they’re not like nail polish, they don’t just come off with a swipe of nail polish remover. The reason gel nails get such a bad rep is because the average person doesn’t know how to correctly remove them and, therefore, it can seem like they stick to your nails like concrete. The key: If your gel nails were applied in the salon, return to the salon to have them removed. A professional will always remove the product best, as they were trained how to do it properly.

However, if you find that you simply must take them off yourself, here’s how:

1. File the top layer of your gels until the shine is removed.

2. Take a sheet of tin foil and cut it into 10 small squares, large enough to wrap around the end of your finger.

3. Soak a small piece of cotton ball with 100 percent acetone (not the pink/purple/yellow bottle of nail polish remover you get at the drug store).

4. Place the cotton on your nail, covering all of the gel, and wrap a piece of tin foil around your whole finger. Continue with the rest of the nails on that hand. (I would recommend only doing one hand at a time unless you’re very talented/dexterous!)

5. Let your nails sit in their little wrappers for 15 minutes. Don’t peek!

6. Working with one nail at a time, remove the wrapper. You should see that the gel polish is started to release from your nail. Using an orangewood stick, gently push the gel off your nail. If some remains on your nail, rewrap that finger and let it sit longer. If any of the gel is really sticking, you can gently file those bits to help loosen it and rewrap the nail. Continue until all of the gel is removed from your nails.

orange sticks


Orangewood sticks, $4.25

7. Apply cuticle oil over your entire nail and into the cuticles. Gently buff your nail with a buffer (not a regular nail file! That will be too coarse and will ruin your nails.) Massage the remaining cuticle oil into your skin and you’re done!

Gel nails ruin your fingernails.

False. Think of it this way: Hair that has never been colored is the healthiest it’s ever going to be. But once you start coloring it, it becomes drier and more brittle. So, you have to combat that with moisturizing shampoo/conditioner and treatments. It’s the same thing with nails. Nails with gels on them can become dry, so it’s important to use cuticle oil on your nails EVERY DAY. I like to keep a bottle on my desk, a cuticle oil pen in my purse and another bottle next to my bed. Every time I think of it, I slather some on. Cuticle oil will keep your nails moisturized and supple to prevent dryness and cracking.

Apricot cuticle oil

Apricot cuticle oil, $8.50

The thing that can actually ruin nails when it comes to gels, is when people pick and pry the gel off of their nails. This action can take off the top layer of your nail, leaving it weak and compromised. Again, the key is to remove the gels properly, ideally by a professional.

Some people find that after repeated gel services, their nails appear very weak and flimsy. This is not because the gels are ruining their nails. Rather, for these people, dryness isn’t the problem but moisture; the gels are holding moisture in the nails. If you were to remove your gels for a few weeks, you’d notice that your nails would become rigid again. This is not because your nails regenerated (it takes six months for a fingernail to grow out), but because the moisture in the nail is evaporating now that it’s not in a protective coating.

Gel UV dryers are dangerous.

False. Many people assume the UV bulbs in nail lamps are the same as the ones in tanning beds. But there is a significant difference in the wavelengths of the two, and it’s easy to see the difference: Sitting in a tanning bed for 15 minutes will cause the pigmentation of your skin to change (tan); that never happens with a UV light for nails, no matter how long you sit under it.

Additionally, there have been numerous studies that have tested UV light exposure during gel nail services and have found that there is nothing to worry about. The newest independent study was released by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Alpert Medical School at Brown University: Researchers studied three models of UV nail lamps similar to those found in salons and for home use. They measured the radiation from a 10-minute session under the lamps (which is a longer amount of time than is generally required for gel nails) and compared the cancer-causing potential to a course of FDA-approved UV phototherapy devices often used by dermatologists. (These treatments carry a low cancer risk.) They discovered that “nail lamps are safe for over 250 years of weekly manicures, and even then there would be low risk of skin cancer,” says study researcher Alina Markova, MD, from Massachusetts General Hospital.

Health tip from Stephanie: What does cause cancer is sun. Start wearing sunscreen on the backs of your hands, and you’ll notice a decrease in sunspots and the possibility of skin cancer.

nail dryer

36W UV gel nail curing dryer, $34

The process:

1. Start with clean nails. File and shape the nail. Then, apply a cuticle remover (like Sally Hansen Instant Cuticle Remover) around the base of your nails. Using a cuticle remover will allow you to push the skin off the nail plate easily with an orangewood stick. Then, remove any excess oils and debris from your nail with a cotton ball dampened with acetone.

2. Apply an extremely thin layer of the base gel to the nails and cure in a UV or LED lamp. Make sure you keep a small distance away from the edge of your nail; you don’t want to get the gel all over your fingers. Also, work thinner than you think; you should be using way less product than you would for nail polish base coat.

3. Apply the color; again, working with a very thin coat. Even it looks streaky, that’s OK. You’ll fill in the color with your second coat. A thin coat will keep it from lifting (pulling away from your nail). Also, be sure to coat the edge of your fingernail with color as well. This will keep the color in place instead of shrinking back from the tip of your nail. Cure the nail and repeat with a second coat.

4. Apply a coat of top gel over the entire nail, making sure to coat the color completely, as well as the edge. Cure in a UV or LED lamp.

5. Some systems require that you remove the tacky layer that occurs after curing the top gel. Remove this with isopropyl alcohol and a cotton ball. Finish by rubbing cuticle oil into the skin around your nails.

Stephanie’s Picks

Red Carpet Manicure

This kit comes with everything you need to get a salon-quality manicure at home.

Color Flash by Katie Cazorla

You don’t need to apply a base gel with this system (technically you don’t need a top gel either, but you can add it for additional shine if you like) and each step cures in 1 minute in the LED light. It’s great for beginners and removal is a snap; it comes with its own removal product—no acetone needed!

After the Manicure

How long do gel nails last?

Depending on the make-up of your nail and how rough you are on your hands, gel nails can last anywhere from 2 weeks up to a month. I find that at-home gels don’t last as long, 1 to 2 weeks. A gel manicure from a salon lasts much longer.

Are they easy to touch up?

With gel nails, if you see a chip or the nail starts growing out, you have to remove all of the gel and start over again. Some brands have nail polishes that match the gel colors, and while you could try and touch up your nails with it, I think you’ll find that it’s more of a quick fix rather than a long-term solution.

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