Anyone who loves a gel manicure knows they can come at a cost—once you remove the long-lasting lacquer you’re often left with weak, peeling, brittle nails. The issue isn’t necessarily the polish so much as it is the method of removal, explains Dana Stern, MD, a dermatologist and an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at The Mount Sinai School of Medicine. You’re going to need to soak your nails in acetone and then use tools to physically push the polish off your nails—a harsh and potentially damaging process.
“When there is aggressive scraping with a metal or wooden tool to remove gel polish, the nail plate also gets removed and this results in significant thinning,” says Dr. Stern. If you damage the nail matrix, the area of the nail beneath the cuticle, you’ll have white patches, ridges, and other surface irregularities to contend with as your nails grow, she warns. Follow these expert pointers on how to remove gel nail polish and you’ll keep your nails healthy between manicures.
Take your time
Patience and time are essential to the process. According to Allure, you should allow yourself a minimum of 30 minutes to remove gel nail polish properly. You’re going to be doing plenty of waiting, so be prepared to sit and relax. If you’re tempted to rush, you’ll increase the odds you’ll do damage to your nails by scraping the polish off rather than waiting for the acetone to soak it off.
Trim your nails
The shorter your nails, the easier it will be to remove gel nail polish, says Evelyn Lim, chief educator for Paintbox nail studio in New York City. “Body heat helps with the removal process,” Lim explains. “Gel is hard to remove from the free edge (nail growth that goes past the fingertips) as there is no body heat behind it.” Trim as much of the white part of your nails as possible so you don’t have to struggle with removing polish from the most stubborn areas.
File the topcoat
You need to file away the topcoat to break the “seal,” Lim explains. She suggests using a 100/180 grit file and wearing down the shiny layer with the 180 side of the file. If you have multiple layers of top coat or nail art, you may need to use the 100 grit side to break down that thicker polish. This step is key in how to remove gel polish, says Lim, and will allow the acetone to penetrate the lacquer.
Protect your cuticles
“One of the most common causes of nail damage is cuticle compromise,” Dr. Stern says. “When moisture enters the nail unit, the new nail is going to grow with abnormalities,” she explains. You can help protect your cuticles during the gel polish removal process by coating the area surrounding the nails with cuticle oil. Refinery29.com suggests forming a protective seal around the delicate cuticle skin with an occlusive balm like petroleum jelly. Taking care of your cuticles is just one way to fight damage; here are other ways to grow strong nails.
Soak in acetone
To effectively remove gel polish, you’ll need to soak in 100 percent acetone. “Non-acetone nail polish remover simply isn’t strong enough to remove gel,” says Jin Soon Choi, a celebrity manicurist and founder of JINsoon Nail Lacquer. “If you try to use non-acetone remover, you will have to use so much force that you will damage your nails and it won’t cleanly remove the polish anyway.”
Wrap each nail in foil
Douse cotton balls in 100 percent acetone and place one on each nail. According to Allure, the cotton balls hold more remover than pads and better fit the nail shape to make removing gel polish go faster. Then wrap each finger in a three-inch square of foil. This will hold the acetone-soaked cotton on the nail and keep the solution from evaporating, Soon explains.
Wait at least ten minutes
This is the most important step in how to remove gel nail polish and requires the most patience. You will need to soak for a minimum of 10 minutes to loosen the layers of polish. To help speed up the process, Soon suggests taking a hot towel and wrapping it around your hand—the warmth helps the acetone work while softening the polish to make it easier to remove. While you’re waiting, consider polishing your nails Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite color next time.
Gently push off polish
You’ll know you’ve soaked long enough when you see the edges of the polish curling up. “When the gel is obviously breaking down or sliding off, gently use a rubber-ended cuticle pusher to clean the polish off your nail plate,” advises Dr. Stern. This is the critical point in how to remove gel nail polish. Aggressive pushing and rubbing here will damage the nail bed. If you have to use more than gentle pressure, you’ll need to repeat the soaking step.
Moisturize your nails
“Major moisturizing is needed after gel polish removal,” Soon says. She suggests soaking your fingers in warm lotion containing vitamin E oil or using a hand mask to rehydrate your skin. You should follow with cuticle oil as often as possible to rehab the delicate area. Wait at least an hour before using your hands for heavy chores to avoid stressing fragile nails, Lim suggests. While your nails are polish-free, look for these signs they can reveal about your health.
Take a polish break
Soon advises removing your gel polish after two weeks. If you have two gel manicures in a row, Soon suggests taking a two-week break to give your nails time to rehydrate and repair. And make sure you know these salon secrets the next time you go in for a manicure.