Whatever you do, don't peel!

By Heather Muir Maffei and Hana Hong
Updated March 30, 2020
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Have a love-hate relationship with gel nail polish? The pros: The polish is super shiny and lasts for weeks—there's no annoying chips regardless of how many dishes you do. The cons: The dreaded removal process takes time and can seriously wreck your nails. We asked celebrity nail expert Tracylee for her advice on removing gel polish at home.

While it's easy to point the finger at gel polish, Tracylee explains nail damage occurs because of improper removal—not the product itself. "Never buff, file, push, pick, or peel off gel polish," warns Tracylee. "Doing so will remove the delicate keratin layers of your nails and weaken them. And unlike our skin, nails don't regenerate the same way, so once a nail is damaged, it needs to grow out with all of the layers intact, which can take up to three or four months." Follow these steps to ensure a safe gel mani removal at home.

Hand with pink gel manicure
Credit: Barbara Donninelli

Lightly buff the gel top coat with a buffing block or soft grit nail file.

This will break the seal of the top coat and help the gel remove quicker.

Note: You'll still see polish on your nails after buffing, but the shine will be dulled. (Buffing until the polish is gone will damage your nails.)

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Remove the gel by soaking it off in two ways.

A. Cut foil into small squares that will fit around the tip of your finger. Then, cut cotton pads/ cotton balls into pieces that are big enough to cover the entire nail. Coat your cuticles and the surrounding skin with cuticle oil or thick moisturizer to protect the skin from the drying acetone. Soak cotton balls in acetone and place them over the entire nail surface to cover the gel. Wrap each finger with small strips of foil to hold the cotton in place. Wait 10-15 minutes and check one nail. If gel remains, re-wrap the nail with cotton and foil and soak in five minute increments until all of the gel is off. Take off any excess polish by gently scraping with the cuticle stick.

B. Or, coat fingers in a thick layer of hand cream to protect the skin from the acetone. Pour acetone in a glass bowl. Soak fingers in the bowl for 10 minutes. If any gel remains, re-soak in five-minute increments until all of the gel is off.

Then, give yourself a hydrating manicure.

Gently file nails, push back cuticles, and apply a nail strengthener, like CND Rescue RXx Daily Keratin Treatment ($11; cvs.com), which repairs damaged nails with the power of keratin protein and moisturizing jojoba oil. Next, hydrate and harden the cuticles by massaging an oil into each nail for 10 seconds. Try OPI ProSpa Nail & Cuticle Oil ($16; ulta.com), which has a brush-on applicator so you don't have to get your hands greasy.

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