Whether you consider yourself an intricate nail art devotee or a minimalist gel mani lover at heart, the urge to pick and peel at grown-out polish is universal. The ease of cleaning up an unkempt manicure this way is almost too good to pass up, especially if you don’t have time to stop by a nail salon to do it for you. But while this particular nail vice may feel—and look—good in the short term, it can cause a lot of damage to your natural nails in the long term.
Below, the experts break down just how bad peeling polish can get for your nails and how to remove gel nail polish the right way. Read this to spare your nail beds from any damage.
What is gel polish?
Gel nail polish is a professional-grade polish that lasts longer than the traditional formulas we’re used to. As Brittney Boyce, the celebrity nail artist responsible for some of Megan Fox and Kim Kardashian’s most Insta-worthy manis, explains, a gel manicure involves the use of an LED light to cure the polish and create that hard exterior to make nails chip-resistant and shiny. Because it involves a different application process than that of regular polish, removal is also different and requires special care so that you don’t damage your nails.
How to remove gel polish at a salon
All experts agree that the best way to remove gel polish is by going to a nail salon and having a professional do it. Celebrity nail artist Queenie Nguyen says that a nail technician will first use a coarse nail file to remove the shiny top layer and roughen up the surface. Then, they’ll place individual cotton pads or cotton balls soaked with acetone on each nail and wrap the fingers with aluminum foil to let the acetone soak in for about 10 minutes. After, they’ll remove the coverings and use a cuticle stick or cuticle pusher to gently push off the gel from your nail bed. They’ll then use a buffer and gently smooth out the nail surface and finish with cuticle oil to rehydrate and condition your natural nail.
How to remove gel nail polish at home
Don’t have time to book an appointment? No problem. You can take off gel polish from the comfort of your home, you just have to be very careful. “Be sure to take the necessary time to remove it properly and gently,” says Nguyen. “Do not use a drill on yourself at home to speed up the process.”
This will be very similar to the salon’s removal process of any gel manicure or pedicure. Marisa Garshick, MD, New York City-based board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology, says you’ll want to start by applying a thin layer of petroleum jelly to the cuticle and surrounding skin for nourishment. Next, you’ll soak a piece of cotton in acetone (the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends you use 100% pure acetone for best results) and place it on top of the nail bed before wrapping the cotton with clear plastic or foil to create a tight seal. Let that sit on your nails for about 10 minutes (longer if your gel polish is thick).
Once enough time has passed, remove the covering and the cotton pad. While Garshick says you can use a warm washcloth to gently push off the polish, Boyce recommends something like Aprés’ Gel Polish Remover Tool to loosen the gel if you’ve found that you need more pressure to take it off.
Once your nails are bare and gel-free, wash your hands with a gentle cleanser and warm water and add a protective barrier like the Vaseline Healing Ointment, to help skin lock in moisture. You can also use a hand cream or cuticle oil to hydrate skin and for added nourishment.
If you’re not keen on using acetone and don’t mind playing the long game, the AAD says that growing out your nails completely offers the safest alternative to removing gel polish. Simply clip your nails once a week until the gel is completely off.
Can you pick gel off?
Yes, it’s tempting. Yes, the chipped polish is taunting you. But all experts say resist the urge to peel gel polish off as it can irritate and damage the surface of your nails. So, the answer is an emphatic no. “You might not notice damage the first or second time, but the number of layers that peel off each time [you pick at it] will cause a weak nail in the end,” Boyce says.
Garshick adds that while it is normal for your nails to appear dry and brittle right after the removal process, getting gel manicures too often will also leave them weak. She says it’s best to take a break from using gel to give your nails a chance to recover.
Gel polish alternatives
If this is all too much of a commitment or if your nails need a break, there are plenty of regular polishes that will give you that gel-like appearance and feel. Nguyen says Dazzle Dry is her favorite gel alternative as it dries quickly and lasts a really long time. Garshick recommends Essie Gel Couture for those same reasons.
If you want to use your signature shade or a new color that catches your eye, Boyce recommends opting for a good gel topcoat to give any regular nail polish that high-shine and helps prolong wear.
So when it comes to nail care with a gel mani, always take the extra time to remove gel polish the right way. While it might be inconvenient to fit the removal process into your busy schedule, your nails will be much better off.
Originally published in Vogue.com