How To Remove Gel Nail Polish Without Wrecking Your Nails

Janet Sung
You'll never hear us complain about the impenetrable, extended wear of a gel or dip powder manicure. But transitioning from an old polish job to a new one? Well, that's something we'll gripe about. The acetone-filled removal process is never a pretty one, and definitely not something we would dare to try ourselves — which is why our manis tend to run ragged after a month's time.
According to Mazz Hanna, a professional manicurist who works with A-list clients like Julia Roberts, our fears aren't unfounded. "There’s this misconception that gel ruins your nails and that's really not the case — it's gel removal that can ruin your nails," she says. But it's what she said next that really got to us: Not only can we easily remove our gel manis at home, it can often be safer than the practices you'll find in many salons.
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"Ideally, gel nails will be removed by a responsible professional. If you're going to a cheap salon, they’re probably going to hack at your nails and cause some damage," she explains. "If you're on a budget and can't afford to go to a higher-end nail spa, you’re better off removing the gel on your own at home."
We asked Hanna to show us the way — which she promises can be completed "in the amount of time it takes to drink a glass of wine." Consider us sold.
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As if a pro's clearance to DIY the salon service isn't great enough, there's more good news: You likely already have many (if not all) of the tools needed to do the job at home. If you do come up short, any item on Hanna's list is readily available at your local drugstore.

Gather acetone, 10 pieces of aluminum foil cut into 2 1/2-inch squares, cotton balls, cuticle oil, nail clippers, a nail file, an orange stick or wooden cuticle pusher, and a double-edged buffer. "I've found buffers that have 100 coarse grit and 180 smooth grit on either side work best for removing gel," Hanna says.
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Now that you have your tools together, it's time to get to work. "The first thing you want to do is break the gel polish seal on your nails," Hanna explains. Start by filing or clipping your tips, then use the coarse side of the buffer to gently remove the top coat from the entire nail.

"You’ll want to do a fair amount of buffing here," Hanna says. "The more buffing you do, the less time you'll need to soak the nails in acetone." After breaking up the gel top coat from all 10 nails, wash your hands to clean them of dust — this step will also minimize the soaking process.
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This next step is something Hanna swears by even though it's not typically done in salons. "I always apply a heavy coat of cuticle oil on the skin and cuticles around the nails to form a seal and protect it from the acetone soak that's to come," she says. "Since you’re going to be leaving it on for 10 minutes, you’re going to want to protect that gentle cuticle skin as much as you can."

The nail pro developed her own formula, Mazz Hanna Amethyst Roller Ball Cuticle Oil, which has jojoba and hemp seed oils along with a crystal rollerball for easy application. If you're soaking off unusually thick layers of gel, she suggests using an occlusive balm, like Aquaphor Healing Ointment, to protect cuticles during longer acetone soaks.
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Once you've sanded away the topcoat and prepped your fingernails, it's time for the big guns: the acetone soak. Start by saturating a small piece of cotton with acetone before resting it atop your fingernail. "A big misconception is that you need to use a lot of cotton for this, but you just need just enough to cover the surface of your nail," Hanna says. "I’ve found that the bigger piece of cotton you use, the longer it takes for the acetone to loosen the gel."

Next, tightly wrap a piece of foil around your finger to cover the cotton, and repeat the process on all five fingers (not 10). "Even when I do it on myself, I do it one hand at a time," Hanna explains. "It takes longer, but it’s easier to manage and you get better results."

If you remove gels every three weeks, you can also consider investing in gel remover. "It’s less offensive to the nose and a gentler alternative to acetone," Hanna says.
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After your nails have soaked for 10 minutes or more, gently remove the foil and cotton from one finger, being careful to preserve its shape (you might need it later). Next, use a wooden cuticle pusher or orange stick to gently scrape the gel from the nail. "I don't suggest using a metal cuticle pusher, because it’s too easy to scrape off the actual nail," Hanna says.

Scraping at the nails can be scary for the uninitiated. How are we to know when we're being too aggressive? "There shouldn’t be too much resistance. If there is, and you're really having to dig and scrape at the polish, then nails needs more time to soak," Hanna explains. If that's the case, repeat the prior step. "If there’s enough acetone left on the cotton, then you can re-wrap your nail with the foil that you just took off," she says. Repeat the process for each nail.
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Now that your nails are finally gel-free, there's one more step that will help restore them to their natural state: Use the less coarse side of the buffer to gently smooth any roughness left on the surface of the nail. Now pour yourself another glass of wine.
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