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One of my worst habits—and trust me, I have quite a few—is picking off my gel nail polish. I know I could risk having my beauty editor card revoked for revealing this truth, but I am not one to lie. I'm an anxious person who grew up biting their nails, so for me there's nothing more satisfying than getting every little piece of flaking gel off as soon as the corners of my gel manicure start to lift.
After years of improper gel removal though, my natural nails became so weak and brittle that I was determined to change my habits. So I asked top-tier manicurists Laura Malarkey and Mazz Hanna for the final word on how to properly remove gel polish at home and at the salon—and I even reached out to dermatologist Kseniya Kobets to breakdown really happens when you peel your gel polish off (spoiler: it's bad!). Keep scrolling for all the important info and tips I learned.
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What is the best way to remove gel nail polish at home?
The best way to remove gel nail polish at home is the soak-off method, which is as simple as it sounds. Hanna says to start the process by filing the top layer of your gel with a nail file until your nails are no longer shiny. Then, soak a cotton ball in acetone, place it on top of each nail, secure it with foil or nail clips, and let it soak for 15 to 30 minutes.
To expedite the process, you can use a heating pad or heated mitts (I like the ones from Le Manoir, but any from Amazon will do). Another useful tip, suggested by Malarkey, is to set up one large and one small bowl. Pour hot water into the large bowl, then nest the small bowl inside it and pour 100 percent acetone to the small bowl. This step warms the acetone, making it work a little bit quicker.
Once 15 minutes are up, wipe your nails with a cotton ball to remove any remaining gel (and if necessary, you can file off any excess). You may need to repeat this soaking process twice for each hand to get all of the gel off, FYI. Once you're satisfied with the removal, use a fine-grit nail buffer to smooth the surface of your nails. Malarkey suggests following this with a keratin nail treatment at least once a day for a week to keep your nails smooth and healthy.
And just so you know, "gel polish can be filed off completely, which is how some salons remove gels, but I don't recommend doing this yourself at home," says Malarkey. It can be difficult for the untrained eye to know when you've filed down to the nail bed, which can cause damage to the nail, so it's best to leave that method to the pros.
How do they remove gel nails at the salon?
For the most part, gel removal at the salon is done the same way it's done at home, but it ultimately depends on the salon. Some salons soak off gel polish, while others choose to completely file it off, usually with a nail drill to break the seal of the gel and remove the shine. "It's important to be aware that a drill should be used very carefully, and your nail artist should be properly educated on how to remove the gel with a drill since improper drill use can cause damage," says Hanna.
Is there a way to remove gel nail polish without acetone?
Yes, you can use resin-based gel nail polish remover to take off gel nails. But (!) "when it comes to removing gel polish in general, it is not possible to do so without causing damage using non-acetone products," explains Hanna. She goes on to say, "If you attempt to remove your gel in any other way, you will likely need to apply much more force, ultimately damaging the nail plate. The reason acetone is the preferred choice for removing gel is because it allows us to gently and effectively remove all of the gel from the nail plate."
One thing to note about acetone is that it is highly drying to the nails and cuticles, and it can certainly increase the risk of skin rashes and cracking around the nails, worsening eczema and skin sensitivities," says Kseniya Kobets, MD. This is why some people might opt to try builder gel (aka soft gel) in between gel appointments, as it can be filled in similar to acrylics and doesn't require full gel removal. To counteract the drying effects of acetone, be sure to spread a moisturizing cuticle oil all over your nails and skin after gel polish removal.
Is it OK to peel off gel nail polish?
"It is never okay to peel off gel polish," warns Hanna. "When you peel off gel polish, layers of your natural nail will be lifted off with it, causing damage and trauma to the nail plate," Hanna explains. Picking will only damage your nails, making them weak and fragile, and more prone to breaking and tearing. "If you plan to get another set of gel nails done in the future, picking off your current gels will severely shorten the lifespan of the next set of gels you get, as gel can't adhere properly to damaged nails," says Malarkey.
This is where the common misconception that gel polish "ruins" nails comes from, but this is simply not true. "Gel itself does not damage nails; the damage is usually done either during improper prep or removal of gel polish," explains Malarkey.
How long can you leave gel nails on?
"You can leave gel polish on anywhere between two to four weeks, depending on the product and how fast your natural nails grow," says Hanna. But if you care about the health of your nails, it's important to go without gel occasionally to avoid potential nail damage.
If you leave gel, dip powder, or acrylic nails on for more than four to six weeks, you can potentially be susceptible to fungal infections, explains Dr. Kobets. And if you keep putting gel on top of an infection, you can possibly make it even worse. This is why it's essential to remove all gel nail polish every two to four weeks. If you notice any serious nail discoloration, make an appointment with your dermatologist for an evaluation.
TL;DR: "Gel polish does not ruin your nails when applied and removed properly," says Hanna. Malarkey echoes this sentiment: "The damage is usually done either during improper prep or removal of gel polish, which is why removing your gel nails properly—using the methods above to soak off the gel and gently scrape it off—is so critical."
However, according to Dr. Koberts, “no matter how you spin it, all nail polish is made of chemicals, whether gel or powder, and can potentially damage the nails over time.” So, exercise caution and ensure you don't keep your cute manicure on for too long, no matter how tempting it may be! And most importantly: Do. not. pick. your. nails. 🚨
Meet the experts:
Kseniya Kobets, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the director of cosmetic dermatology at Montefiore Einstein Advanced Care in Elmsford, NY. She's passionate about utilizing treatments and procedures to help patients treat acne, rosacea, scarring, and smoothed fine lines and wrinkles.
Why trust ‘Cosmopolitan’?
Iman Balagam is a beauty contributor at Cosmopolitan with nearly three years of experience writing beauty stories that range from curling irons to mini flat irons. She’s an authority in all nail categories, but is an expert when it comes to gel polish removal, thanks to years of personally researching and testing different studios and services.
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