How to Remove Gel Nail Polish at Home Without Ruining Your Nails

Skip a trip to the nail salon with these expert tips.
Gel nail polish manicure removal
Photo: Anton27 / Shutterstock
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Jenn Barthole
jenn barthole headshot
Jenn Barthole
The Knot Fashion & Beauty Contributor
  • Based in New York City, Jenn Barthole is a Freelance Editor for The Knot, where she contributes fashion and beauty content.
  • Jenn also contributes wellness, interiors, celebrity, fashion, beauty, and travel content to notable publications including ELLE, Refinery 29, Domino, TripAdvisor, EBONY, Cosmopolitan and PopSugar.
  • She graduated with a major in Communications and a minor in Spanish, from Loyola University in Balt...
Updated Nov 30, 2023
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Getting your nails done can be a relaxing, indulgent experience—especially a glossy, gel manicure that lasts for weeks. However, heading back to the salon to remove the polish can be time-consuming, costly, and downright inconvenient. Thankfully, we've rounded up some easy solutions on how to safely remove gel nail polish at home.

While it can be incredibly tempting to just peel off your gel polish, this can make your nails thin and brittle. As an alternative, there are some fool-proof DIY methods that provide convenience and control, which can ultimately benefit your nail health.

To make the process a breeze, we consulted Celebrity Manicurist and Educator, Julie Kandalec and Celebrity Manicurist and Nail Expert, Mar y Sol Inzerillo. Keep reading for their expert tips on safely removing gel polish at home, without damaging your nails.

In this article:

Can You Remove Gel Nail Polish at Home?

Thankfully, there are quick and simple methods to remove gel polish at home, so you can skip a visit to the salon. Be sure to gather the materials needed, which include a nail file or buffer, cuticle or olive oil, aluminum foil, cotton balls or pads, and a cuticle pusher stick. For best results, Kandalec advises using "100% pure acetone or the gel remover that the manufacturer makes is the most efficient way to remove it."

Mistakes to Avoid When Removing Gel Polish

There are a few faux pas to keep in mind as you remove gel polish on your own. Most importantly: "You should never ever peel off your gel to avoid damaging the nailbed," explains Kandalec. Picking the gel off can damage the top layers of your natural nails, leaving them thin and weakened. "If you attempt to use an acetone-based polish remover, your nails will just become gummy but not soak off, because the acetone content isn't high enough (98-100%) to properly penetrate the gel and remove it". Lastly, you can technically file the gel polish all the way off "but doing that takes a careful and gentle hand so you don't file all the way down to the natural nail."

The Best Way to Remove Gel Nail Polish at Home

With the right instructions, removing gel polish in the comfort of your own home is a fairly simple process. We've created a step-by-step, manicurist-approved guide that will deliver salon-quality results.

1. File The Topcoat

To start, Kandalec says "use a medium (180 grit) file to gently remove as much of the topcoat and top layer of gel color as you can. Depending on how thick the gel is, you may have to start with the coarse, 100-grit side of the file. Once the shiny top coat is gone, you'll notice that color and finish have changed. Don't file all the way down to the natural nail though, that's how damage is caused."

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2. Let Them Soak

Then, "take a small, thin piece of cotton (1/5th of a cotton ball) and completely saturate it with pure acetone (not acetone-based polish remover)" states Kandalec. If the cotton isn't soaked enough "acetone evaporates quickly and the gel won't come off as easily." Next, "place cotton over the nail and wrap it in a 2x2in. square of aluminum foil or use the pre-made wraps." To ensure that the wraps stay secure, fold the foil up over the tip of the finger and then fold the sides in and give it a squeeze to tighten." Repeat this step on all 10 nails.

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3. Bring On The Heat

Once your nails are wrapped up, "place a warm towel over your hands. This helps contain the heat that your hands produce and activate the acetone work much faster." However, "don't ever heat up the actual acetone as it is flammable!" warns Kandalec. Then, sit back and allow your wrapped nails to soak under the towel for 15-20 minutes. As you relax, the acetone is working quickly to break down the gel polish.

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4. Remove Gently

After the soaking period is up, check a single nail to see if the polish has softened before detaching the foils. Then, "work one nail at a time, twist and squeeze, and pull off the foil. Only remove one at a time or the gel can re-harden as the acetone evaporates" details Kandalec. Next, "use a wooden stick and softly scrape away the gel towards the nail's free edge." If any gel is left over, repeat the steps.

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5. Cleanse and Moisturize

Now that your nails are bare, use a nail brush or clean cotton pad soaked in remover to wipe any remaining residue. Afterward, "smooth the nail using a padded buffer," says Kandalec. To finish, "apply a rich hand cream and nourishing cuticle oil that will replenish your nail beds and hands, while retaining moisture."

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How to Remove Gel Nail Polish Without Acetone

Without using acetone, "removing gel polish is tricky but doable. It takes patience and time" explains celebrity manicurist Mary y Sol Inzerillo. Here are a few of her alternative methods to remove gel nail polish:

1. Steam it Off

Recognized as one of the most innovative products in the nail industry, this mini machine generates steam to remove polish without leaving the nails thin and brittle. "Start by filing off the topcoat then insert your hands in the machine" Inzerillo instructs. The steam works instantly to soften and melt off gel, dip, or acrylic polish in about 10 minutes. Once you notice peeling, "use a wooden stick to gently scrape off any remaining polish" and voila! Your hydrated and healthy nails will thank you.

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2. File Away

Another safe removal option is to simply file the gel off. First, "Clip off the tips until you are at your desired length. Then using the rougher grit on your file go over the top of the nail while trying not to apply too much pressure" details Inzerillo. She adds, "It's best to file in one direction versus side to side. Once the majority is off, use the finer side of the file and a buffer to smooth it out." Once the gel is completely gone, "apply a nail strengthener like Sally Hansen's nail hardener which I absolutely love. Then reapply cuticle oil."

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3. Warm It Up

Soaking your hands in warm water is another acetone-free option. First, pour warm water into a bowl and mix in dish soap and a sprinkle of salt. Then, "file the top coat of polish and apply an oil, such as olive oil, almond oil, or cuticle oil, around your cuticles and under your nail bed" Inzerillo explains. Next, confirm that the water is still warm, then soak your hands for 15-20 minutes, to ensure that the polish is softened. "Once you begin to see the gel butterfly off you can use a cuticle pusher to gently slide it off. Finish up by buffing off the excess, filing your nails, and re-applying cuticle oil."

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