Any gel-manicure enthusiast knows that when it comes to gel polish, the rose also happens to be the thorn. The reason we love getting a gel manicure is because it stays on much longer than regular polish (not to mention, doesn’t chip as easily or lose that top-coat shine), but that’s also exactly what ends up coming back to haunt us two or three weeks later—when we’re stuck with it.
There can be no running-late swipe of an acetone-soaked pad. It simply won’t work. You have to go there again…to the salon in order to get it properly soaked off. And is it just us, or does it seem like just when a gel mani is starting to look worse for wear, we’re suddenly all booked up and stuck with peeling gel polish and no time for the salon?
Besides, we all know what happens when you try to peel off or chip away at gel nail polish, too. You’re left in pain and ashamed—and with stripped, ruined nail beds to boot.
But if you’re really in a pinch, there’s a foolproof way to take off gel nail polish safely at home. Don’t be fooled: You must be committed. It takes around 35 to 40 minutes, requires more than just a few acetone-soaked cotton balls, and could honestly use an extra helping hand (someone call Mama!). We’ll start with the basics, and get into expert-level tips later.
Here’s how to remove gel nail polish at home without ruining your nails.
Step 1: Grab your nail file and get to work
Bonus points if you have an extra rough nail file, but any will do. Start by filing down the polish until the shine is gone and the color looks buffed. There’s no need to file down the color all the way; that risks hitting your nail bed (ouch!). This quick and easy step makes the whole process go much more smoothly.
Step 2: Soak those cotton balls, baby
There are actually two options here. You can soak your fingertips in a shallow bowl filled with acetone, or you can wrap your fingertips in cotton balls. The latter will keep the nail polish remover firmly pressed onto your nail bed, which helps break down the polish more quickly. Not to mention, there’s no bowl shallow enough to avoid drying out more skin above your fingertips than really necessary.
When soaking a cotton ball in acetone, make like Elizabeth Taylor and go “more is more.” You want it completely and irrevocably soaked. Not full-on dripping, but close enough.
Step 3: Wrap your fingertips in aluminum foil
This is a common practice used at the nail salon when you're getting gel polish removed, and it makes a huge difference. Before soaking the cotton balls, cut a sheet of aluminum foil into handy little squares and wrap each square around your fingertip with the acetone-soaked cotton ball pressed firmly onto the polished nail bed.
Trust us: This is much easier when helped by a friend. Things start to get dicey after you’ve wrapped a few fingertips, even harder after seven or eight. It’s doable alone, but takes longer and triggers bouts of acetone-induced anger. Wrap until all 10 fingertips are secured, looking like tin-foil claws. Now we wait.
Step 4: Wait, wait, wait…NOW you can take it off
This depends on how long you’ve had the gel polish on (the longer it’s had time to naturally degrade, the less time this step usually takes), but it takes at least 15 to 20 minutes. Speaking from personal experience, we’d recommend closer to 25 or 30 minutes to be safe. Once those tin-foil claws come off, you really don’t want to put them back on.
As you’re taking off each aluminum-foil wrap, apply pressure and rub it back and forth like you would if trying to take off regular polish. If there is still polish left on any nail beds, use a wooden nail stick or a nail file to loosen and remove the remaining gel polish. Soaking should have softened the grip, which means this should not risk stripping your nail bed.
Before wrapping your fingertips with acetoney cotton balls, prep your cuticles with moisturizing cream or cuticle oil (but only a little!) to keep them from getting super dried-out.
If you’re a self-care savant and happen to have heated spa gloves, slip them on after wrapping your fingertips in aluminum foil. Extra heat helps the acetone soften the gel polish even more quickly. (We can thank our nail aesthetician for this trick.)
Finally, do your nails look discolored from your just-removed nail color? Try this hack to whiten your fingernails.
Voilá—gel mani no more. Southern women love a budget-friendly, time-saving hack, and we’re adding this one to the list.
WATCH: 13 Nail Colors for Fall 2019 to Try When You’re Ready to Ditch Your Summer Manicure
What's the best reason to take off your gel manicure? To make room for a brand-new nail color, of course! Get to picking (and polishing).