How to Remove Gel Nail Polish the Right Way, According to the Pros

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 Nail 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 Nail 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.