Introduction: How to Remove a Gel Manicure

Picture of How to Remove a Gel Manicure

Gel manicures are all the rage these days.   Gelish and Shellac each offer the client long-lasting, chip-free manicures that promise to stay put for weeks at a time!  My experience with gel manicures was gravely disappointing.

The truth about gel manicures:
  • Gel manicures DO chip.  Mine lasted about three days.  Assuming that the polish had been applied incorrectly (it's quite a process, and involves setting under UV light!), I went back to have it redone.  The second gel manicure I received lasted about three days. 
  • They cost up to 3 times what a normal spa manicure does.  If they actually lasted three times as long, this *might* be worth the limited color selection available and the fact that:
  • You can only have your polish removed at a salon that offers gel manicures (until now!) and the process involves soaking your nails in acetone.  Often the removal process requires an additional fee as well!
Deciding this was all a little too ridiculous, I set out to see how I could remove the gel manicure I'd submitted my poor little nailbeds to on my own.  I even compared using acetone-based nail polish remover to using straight-up acetone.  I'm sorry to report that the nail polish remover just didn't cut it - even after 30 minutes of soaking.

Step 1: Materials

Picture of Materials

To remove your overpriced gel polish without incurring the expense of an additional salon visit, you will need the following:

Acetone (only the real stuff will do)
Cotton balls (or squares)
Aluminum foil

This is the working woman's solution to gel polish removal. I suppose if you have all day to sit around soaking your fingers in a bowl of acetone, that would probably work just as well, and you could bypass the need for cotton balls and tin foil. As it was, I still had work to do!

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Step 2: The Method

Picture of The Method

Soak the cotton balls in acetone. 

Apply one soaked cotton ball to each nail.

Wrap each nail in a small piece of aluminum foil to seal in place.

If you make little pointy tips on the end of each finger, you can continue to use a keyboard and get your business done!

Step 3: Comparisons

Picture of Comparisons

I did a few comparisons to see if I really could get away with using acetone-based nail polish remover instead of industrial strength acetone.  I also tested different soaking times with the acetone so I could provide you with the proper amount of time it takes to remove the bulk of the polish without overcooking your delicate nailbeds!

The image here shows you one finger after having soaked in acetone-based nail polish remover, and the other in acetone, each for 20 minutes.  The nail polish remover didn't seem to have much effect at all.

Step 4: Finishing

Picture of Finishing

After about 20 minutes, check the effectiveness of your polish removal units.  Slide one of the acetone foil packets off of your nail while using the cotton inside to effectively wipe away the remaining polish.  If most of the polish is gone, you can remove the rest.  If not, reapply cotton and foil and check again in 5-10 minutes.

Even 30 minutes of this technique did not remove all of the polish cleanly, but it did loosen all of it.  I finished my manicure removal by scraping away the remains with the blunt edge of a plastic knife.  

As you can imagine, all of this torture, from the initial chemical polish, to the blast of UV light, to the final acetone soak, has left your nails in top condition!  (no it has not)  Be gentle with your nails from here on out.  Treat them with kindness and balms.  Promise them you will never do this to them again.  And don't get me started on those nail stickers that you seal on with heat either. . . because believe me, I've tried it.  I don't know why my nails haven't packed up and left me yet, but I promise to be kinder to them in the future.


JoyB62 (author)2017-01-03

It is awesome that gel manicures can be removed from home. It can be potentially a pain to go out to remove shellac or gel nail polish, especially if you have done your own nails. It seems very convenient that the entire process can be completed within your own home. It is often hard for me to make it to the nail salon with my busy schedule, especially if I don't have a babysitter for my kids. It would be very convenient if I could complete the entire process while my kids are sitting in the living room watching a movie!

JenniferE84 (author)2016-10-15

I did the whole file my nails, 100% acetone, cotton things&tinfoil routine, left it on for 40 minutes and the gel polish won't come off! That advice is bogus.

MichelleL132 (author)2016-04-02

Apparently your nail salon has no idea whats going on! I finnish sheetrock for a living and i have my nails n everything,they keep there shine and have NEVER chipped! N i have them dun every 2-3 weeks

Jenifer05 (author)2015-11-10

If you want to check out my site it's it's life changing!!!

ArmandaP (author)Jenifer052016-01-31

The author clearly states in her article "And don't get me started on those nail stickers that you seal on with heat either. . . because believe me, I've tried it."

Sounds like Jamberry to me..

Katzsta (author)2015-12-08

Sooooo, you can get these little plastic bottles (just for the nails) on Ebay or Amazon. You fill them with remover and stick your finger tips in them. While they look funny, they do work. Also, I found a great hint about glitter polish, which seems to stay with me for weeks after removing it with acetone remover. Just do a light basecoat of regular white glue, yes school glue. Let it dry. Then apply the glitter polish. When done with the look of them, just peel them off. Sometimes they do soak off if you are having a long bath or have your fingernails in water a lot, but still, at least the glitter isn't there for months. I have stopped buying glitter polish altogether. We want pretty nails, but ohhh the cost of having them.

scoochmaroo (author)Katzsta2015-12-09

What a great tip for glitter nails! You should seriously make your own Instructable just on that.

Jenifer05 (author)2015-11-10

I just did gels at a salon and I'm not a fan. I tried jamberry trushine before and I love it!!! They have removal packets so much easier to take off.

Jessidm74 (author)2015-09-11

Mine lasted about 16 days. $22 for nIls over 2 weeks plus no chipping sounds great to me. I clean like crazy, I cook for my 3 kids, wash dishes and I do gardening so it was perfect for me. Getting them off was a slight pain but I did go to the salon and they take them off for free :)

MargaretG1 (author)2015-08-18

Thank you - great idea! I will definitely try this.

BrendaT6 (author)2015-07-11

Hi Zurichko - nice patterns, but would be better with some clean-up

jlane4 (author)2015-06-21

Wherever you got your nails done incorrectly. You should only need to go in once a month to have them filled.

vicki D (author)2015-05-23

Thank you. You may also add some vitamin e oil to the acetone at least you wont be totally dried up on your poor nailbeds

paula.bannister.12 (author)2014-08-22

I am so glad I found this - thank you! I had one set of Gel Nails last year, but my nails really hurt because of the way they were put on, so I ended up getting them taken off after 3 days, which was even more brutal than the way they were put on. I have since found out that it was done very incorrectly. I am getting my second ever set done in a couple of days, but by a different person who has a significantly more experience and a great reputation, so am looking forward to it. But I thought I would see about ways of getting it off myself just in case. Also, I have brought a couple of Avon's Gel Polish's and they last for ages longer than a normal home use polish, and it comes off really easily with normal nail polish remover. So far I have gotten bored with the colour before its had chipped.

Gel nails and gel polish manicures are not from th same thing though...

drvictoria.boyd.3 (author)2015-04-12

Hello All,

I had my first gel manicure on March 28, 2015 and loved it; however, I am just taking the color off today. My polish still looks fresh (except for my new nail growth). The manicurist I had told me what to do to get the polish off at home and it worked wonderfully. Please see below:

You will need two bowls (one for the acetone and one for the hot water)

Put enough 100% acetone inside one bowl to cover your nails. Place the acetone bowl inside the bowl with the hot water. The acetone will get heated from the hot water. Let your nails soak (I did one hand at a time). As they are soaking saturate a cotton ball with the acetone and as the polish gets "soft" it will slide off very easily with the soaked cotton ball. Feel free to add a little pressure to scrape some of the polish off your nails. After all polished is removed moisture your hands and nails very thoroughly. I use coconut oil all the time and my hands and nails look good as new.

NOTE: The water from my faucet was hot enough to heat the acetone and was a comfortable temperature to soak my nails.

I hope this info helps.

This is great tip! I've got a gel on right now that will need to come off in another week, and I'm going to try this for sure. Thanks!

Also, as the water cools down just refresh it.

tracie.greg (author)2015-03-04

...isn't soaking your fingers in a bowl of acetone extremely bad for you? Your skin is your largest organ and soaking your fingers in that crap goes right into your bloodstream, you might as well drink the acetone!! Their must be a better way to get this gel off that is healthier??


After paying to have my nails done in the gel polish at the salon a few times I started doing my own. I bought an LED light, not a UV . The LED light cures the polish a lot faster and no worries about being exposed to UV to often...although the LED light costs a bit more. I paid 40.00 for mine on Amazon. As for taking the gel polish off I use the acetone polish remover a cotton ball and finger cots (it's like the gloves at the Dr. office but is only for the tips of your fingers), you can find them almost anywhere...I buy mine on Amazon but have bought them at walmart also. You just put a good amount of the polish remover on the cotton ball, set it on your nail and roll the finger cot over your nail. So easy. You let it soak for a bit (the longer you leave it on the easier it is to just swipe off). If all the polish doesn't come off with the cotton ball as you wipe it across your nail then use those metal cuticle spoons as I call them and remove the little bit left on the nail. It really isn't very hard and doesn't damage your nails. Also I think that the finger cots make it so much easier then the tin foil as the finger cots kind of keep things air tight so to speak and I think that really helps loosen up that gel polish. I hope this helps.

bamagal (author)2014-11-19

I have been getting gel manicures for years. They last for 3 to 4 weeks, or even longer. I have had this done at several different salons over the years, so they must all have been doing it correctly. (My hands are not exposed to chemicals throughout the day; maybe that's why the gel lasts longer for me.) But yes, it is difficult getting the polish off unless you go back to the salon or use the method described in this article. I am also concerned about the monthly exposure to the UV light on my hands. I thought about getting those gloves that expose only the nails, but I have found a better solution. I am going to switch to Jamberry nail wraps. Then I can switch out my colors and patterns anytime I want. No more salon trips! Other than occasionally perhaps to get cuticles cut or whatever, but I won't get color applied there, since I'll be using the Jamberry wraps at home from now on.

AngelK1 (author)bamagal2015-02-20

I LOVE Jamberry nail wraps and I love the gel polish! It's great how long they both last and look soooo cute :)

ScoobertLynnDoo (author)2015-02-12

My gel manicure lasted for about a month without chipping, I think it just depends on where you go. But thanks for the tips!

AngelK1 (author)ScoobertLynnDoo2015-02-20

My gel manicure has lasted 2 weeks so far and no chips yet!!!

AryssaT (author)2015-02-09

Thanks that helped a lot! I got gel nail polish and it lasted for 9 days they said it would last 14 i though it was a good deal. Thanks for the tip.

BiancaT1 (author)2015-01-27

I have to disagree whole heartedly with this post. I get gel or schellac manicures and IF DONE CORRECTLY they last 3 weeks or longer depending on how fast your nails grow. Be careful about making blanket statements about things. It is your experience but it is not good to tell other people that it doesn't work. I am assuming the place that you got yours done did not really know what they were doing. Shop around and find a person that has experience doing them.

GamalielA (author)2014-08-23

Thank Rachel and Paula, I needed to know that back before I return to my manicurist, she did a very professional job, this is my forth week. No chipping at all, two came off completely because they were acrylic tips, and three of my own nails break in the bed of the nail anyway. All in all, great first experience for me, but no more gels for me. I removing the remainder of them now, my glue on pre-polished nails work great for me, I just use a super professional glue, and my natural aren't the least damaged. Yep, I am ditto on Avon nail gel polish they do work!! Going to try Sally Hansen on light gel polish now, back at you later. Thanks ladies, keep up the good work.

rachael.heimann (author)2014-08-07

I have to say that you must not have gone to someone who knows what they are doing. I have been using gel polish instead of regular polish for my manicure now for a year. I work as a waitress and my hands are constantly in water, sorting sharp silverware, handling cleaning chemicals, etc. My gel manicure not only doesn't chip from the wear and tear of the never ending shifts at work, but even after my nails grew out too long, and I TRIMMED them with clippers, THE GEL STILL DIDN'T CHIP. Perhaps you might find a new place to get yours done, because I have found that while the gel is more expensive, it is TOTALLY WORTH the price for the endurance of the polish. These pictures were taken after almost three weeks of wear, AND after I CUT THEM DOWN with nail clippers. NOT EVEN A CHIP...just the gap from where they've grown out.

holly-g (author)2014-03-02

Yeah, acetone is acetone. If you've followed correct steps, your gel WILL slide off in four minutes! As with anything, you pay for what you get. No equipment from home is salon quality. Certain treatments are best left to salons and practitioners if you want to look professional. Seriously, who wants to look cheap and home made! We do know.

tbrown49 (author)2012-12-30

After putting on the foil i popped a plastic glove on top to hold foil in place as they kept falling off, works a treat

china pink (author)2012-04-19

I just finish having a expensive mistake, the first time that I had the jell done on my nails it lasted three weeks, when I went back to the salon singing the praise of my nails. I do not think the lady was happy the next one lasted three days so I went some place else and they butchered my nails. I t cost me triple to get that stuff off and I still have some great damage, but thank goodness I have thick nails
I wish I had seen this earlier , will be telling my friends about this thank you.

scoochmaroo (author)china pink2012-04-19

What a bummer! I finally have one that's lasted me almost two weeks!!! Yes, from now on you can remove your own manicures, but now when I get one that only lasts a couple days, I'll go right back to the salon and ask them to redo it. They've always done it for me for free!

kazmataz (author)2012-03-21

I just gave this a try, and it worked great! Thanks Sarah!

enjoi74 (author)2011-12-12

I assure you it was not done correctly. I purchased everything and did mine myself and my nails have lasted at least over 1 week. Mine would last longer if my uv light was'nt such a barney. I have ordered a led and am positive I will have better success with that. I have a huge collection of opi polishes and I will never go back to regular nail polish. The gelish system is sold at sally's beauty supply and online btw. Don't give up, if you do it yourself you'll save a ton of money and you'll be better results I bet. The shiniest nails ever!

prettykitty2020 (author)2011-08-29

oh and theres a few reasons why it could have chipped

1)incorrect prep method (cuticle removal and dehydrating nail beds)
2)improper curing( didnt cure for the right time)
3) uv light bulbs needed 2 be changed
4) your lifestyle( if you work w/ chemicals or have to have your hands in water/washing them)
and 5) your nail beds (if theyre oily or if they have ridges and all that)

but the main ones are improper prep or water for enhancements water is the enemy but you could always try different brands to see if any are for you as well

I have fond if the tips are not capped with product they will chip very soon after application.

prettykitty2020 (author)2011-08-29

the method 2 taking it off is correct but as a nail tech student i should warn u that using anything on ur nails thats not supposed to go on your nails is VERY DANGEROUS your nail beds soak up whtevers on your nails and it gets into your bloodstream and can permanently damage your nails so just use nail acetone believe me if u still want nails just use that :)

Pure Acetone IS what is used in a salon. There is no such thing as Nail Acetone.

Ninzerbean (author)2011-08-29

Wow, I have never heard of this before, thank you for the info though, just in case it ever makes its way to Florida. I wish I could have pretty nails but with all the DIY projects I tackle it would be such a waste of time.

zurichko (author)2011-08-29

Ouch. I just nail stamp, it's cute and not painful!

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