Soaking it All Off: How to Remove Gel Nails at Home

By | July 21, 2022

Removing gel nails properly takes the right combination of tools, procedure, and patience. DIY’ing it at home will save you money and physical discomfort if your nails are sensitive or weak.

For many fingernail fashionistas, once you go gel you never go back. And with booming selections of DIY gel manicure products, folks have found it more economical and timely to take matters into their own hands.

While gel polish has a lot of upsides to its usage, such as durability and longevity, it’s seemingly not so great when it comes to removal. The consensus most effective way seems to be peeling off the polish. But doing that can cause serious damage to your nails. 

Here are some tips for proper removal of your gel polish so your fingernails can continue to stay on fleek.

soaking finger nails
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What supplies do you need?

Here is a list of items you will want to have to remove your gel nail polish at home:

  • Nail file. Using a file to roughen the smooth surface of your painted nail can let the nail polish remover work its magic.
  • Acetone nail polish remover. Opt for the acetone remover, rather than traditional nail polish remover. Acetone is significantly more effective at weakening gel polish. 
  • Cuticle stick. This helps you gently and safely scrape off gel polish residue without peeling.
  • Cuticle oil or heavy cream. For those with sensitive skin, applying cuticle oil or a heavy cream can be used to help protect your cuticles from possible damage that can be caused by acetone nail polish remover.
  • Cotton balls. Cotton balls allow for the nail polish remover to be applied directly on the nail polish, rather than submerging your fingers completely.
  • Plastic wrap or tinfoil. Tinfoil is wrapped around your finger to hold the acetone-soaked cotton balls against your fingernails.
  • Nail buffer. Buffing your nails with nail buffer smooths your nails after the polish has been removed.

How to remove gel nails at home

Before picking a method for removing your nail polish, begin with the steps below to ensure the most efficient and timely removal:

  • Set up in a well-ventilated area. Last thing you want is to get a migraine from inhaling the potent fumes from your nail polish remover, especially if you are using acetone
  • Prep your nail surface. The key to efficient gel polish removal is to roughen the surface of the nail polish. The nail file shouldn’t be used to file off the polish — the goal is to remove the shine from the top layer of your gel polish so that the acetone can successfully penetrate through.
  • Protect your cuticles and skin. Applying cuticle oil or petroleum jelly to the skin around your nails before applying the acetone will create a protective barrier from the harsh substance.

Soaking

The soaking method is the simplest way to remove your gel polish without the use of a lot of tools.

  1. Fill a small bowl with just enough acetone nail polish remover to cover your fingertips. 
  2. Soak your fingertips in acetone for 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Check to see if your polish has started to lift away from the nail and gently scrape off the loose polish with a cuticle stick.
  4. When all of the polish has been scraped off, gently buff your nails to smooth the surface.
  5. Apply a small amount of cuticle oil to your cuticles to rehydrate them.

The Edward Scissorhands (ie. cotton ball soak with tinfoil wraps or plastic wrap)

Since acetone is notorious for drying out your skin, the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA) supports this method for safely removing your gel manicure. It allows for acetone to remain more concentrated to your nail, reducing exposure to surrounding skin surfaces and is just as effective as soaking.

  1. Cut tinfoil or plastic wrap into ten squares of approximately 1-1.5 square inches. Each piece should be large enough to completely cover your fingertip while securing a small cotton ball against your fingernail.
  2. Gently file the top of your manicure to allow the acetone to penetrate and lift the gel polish away from your natural nail surface.
  3. Soak a cotton ball in acetone, and place it on your fingernail starting with your non-dominant hand. 
  4. Take one tinfoil square and wrap it over the acetone-soaked cotton ball to secure it to your nail.
  5. Allow your nails to soak for 10 to 15 minutes.
  6. Check to see if your polish has started to lift away from the nail and gently scrape off the loose polish with a cuticle stick.
  7. Apply a small amount of cuticle oil to your cuticles to rehydrate them.

Non-acetone removal

To remove gel nail polish without acetone you will need water, a cuticle stick, a buffer, moisturizer and cuticle oil.

  1. Soak your fingers in very warm water for 20 minutes.
  2. Locate a loose spot between the polish and your nail. Using your fingernail or a cuticle stick, gently lift up the loosen part of the gel polish.
  3. Pour some water over the lifted part and simultaneously use your fingernail to gently raise it even more.
  4. If needed, soak your nails again in the warm water to continue loosening the polish and repeat. 
  5. Now being very careful, use a buffer to remove the residue of the gel nail polish.
  6. Apply cuticle oil on the cuticles and moisturizer on the nails.

How to remove fake nails

While both methods leave your nails looking like flashy, shiny gemstones, there are some differences between gel manicures and fake nails. If you sport faux nails, the good news is that the same tools used to remove your gel polish can simultaneously be used to remove your fake nails. HOORAY!

Here is how to safely remove your fake nails:

  1. Trim down your acrylic nails. This will allow for less surface area for the acetone to penetrate in order to remove the fake nail. 
  2. Using a nail file, file down the top coat of the gel polish on your nail surface. This will allow the acetone to penetrate and lift the fake nail away from your natural nail.
  3. Proceed with the soak method or Edward Scissorhands method (see above).
  4. Allow your fingertips to chillax for 20 minutes while the nail polish remover works its magic. Keep in mind that using non-acetone nail polish remover may take longer than pure acetone. 
  5. Use a cuticle stick to scrape off any remaining adhesive or polish.

The risky business

As with every procedure, it is important to know the risks of removing gel nails in the comfort of your own home.

First and foremost, resist the urge to peel your gel polish or fake nails off (looking at you, nail-biters). Peeling is a sure way to damage your nail bed, which can cause deformity and long term effects.

Be careful when using acetone. Acetone is a highly flammable substance, so be sure you are not using it near a fire. It’s fumes are also toxic and if your space is not well ventilated, you will be doing a disservice to your health. Numerous studies have been published that have found correlations between between nail cosmetic exposures and respiratory, neurologic, and musculoskeletal health.

Repeated use of gel polish and fake nails are not great for your natural fingernails. Gel nails require the use of UV or LED lighting in order to obtain that glossy look. Exposure to these lights can increase your risk of various types of skin cancer. Additionally, most people experience nail brittleness, which leads to cracking and disruption of your nail bed if the polish is not removed properly.

Bottom line

Taking the cost-effective route of removing your gel nails at home is completely doable. All you need is a nail file, some acetone nail polish remover, a cuticle stick, an episode of your latest binge-worthy show and you are good to go sis.  

Resist the urge to pick your nail bling off without the proper tools. And if you are concerned about skin damage or nail damage, it is best to stick to traditional nail polish.

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