How to Remove a Gel Manicure Without Killing Your Nails
Removal, maintenance, and recovery. It’s like rehab for your nails.
Remember Blue Valentine? OK, maybe it’s better if you don’t remember, so as to avoid spontaneously crying at your desk or crouched over your phone. But remember how Ryan Gosling sings “You Always Hurt the One You Love” to Michelle Williams and she tap-dances? That song pretty much sums up our relationship with gel nails. We love them, and they love us back by lasting for weeks on end without so much as a chip—until they start to teeter over the three-week mark, or we absentmindedly start picking at one that’s growing out...and they proceed to zap any hint of life or vibrancy out of our nail beds. That eventually leaves us with a set of dry, splitting nails and a pile of gel polish chips (gross, we know).
The saga doesn’t stop there—by now it’s impossible to go back to regular nail polish, despite hoarding approximately five million bottles in your vanity. So how does one break the cycle, remove gel nails in the least damaging way, and continue the relationship in a healthy way? We tasked two of the biggest manicurists in the entire industry—Jin Soon Choi, a fashion favorite who counts Steven Meisel and Marc Jacobs among her collaborators, and Deborah Lippmann, who’s manicured practically everyone in Hollywood (and can usually be found at the hands of whoever goes on to win big every Oscar night)—with answering just that.
First things first: How much damage are gel manicures actually doing to your nails?
“Gel manicures have the potential for damaging your nail beds, which largely happens in the removal process, or more specifically, the improper removal process. A lot of people get impatient with the amount of time that it takes for the gel to dissolve, and they end up scraping or pulling the product off, and that’s what damages the nail. Also, you have to see a technician that has equal patience and is properly removing and not over-scraping. Once the damage is done, it can take six to eight months for the nail to grow out, and in some circumstances, the damage can be permanent.” —Deborah Lippmann
“Among gel nail polishes, Shellac is the most gentle. But keeping gel on for two weeks can dry your nails substantially, and most of the damage is incurred when removing it. Some gel nail polish is far too strong and has to be filed off from the nail surface to be removed, which destroys the outer layer of the nail bed. Some gel removal requires soaking your fingers in pure acetone, which is also very destructive to your nails and skin; acetone thoroughly dehydrates your nails and skin, even with minimal exposure. I don’t allow acetone to be used in my salons.” —Jin Soon Choi
How to protect your skin from those UV lights:
“Many salons nowadays have fingerless gloves available for clients to protect their hands during Shellac or gel manicures when they are placed under the UV lights that hardens the formula. However, I would recommend anyone apply an SPF hand cream before going in, just to be safe!” —DL
How to maintain and protect nails underneath your usual gel:
“Once you do get a gel or Shellac manicure, be sure to apply cuticle oil as often as you can to maintain moisturized nails.” —JSC
“Maintain a regular and frequent moisturizing regimen. Keep a hand lotion that hydrates and protects your skin with you to reapply throughout the day, and make sure cuticles are well nourished. Apply a drop of cuticle oil at the base of each nail daily.” —DL
What are the dos and don’ts of frequent gel manicures?
“Never pick or bite gel off your nails between manicures! If you do this, you’re taking a layer of the nail off with you, thereby weakening the nail plate.” —DL
“I have noticed that people with healthy nails tend to get less damage from gel and Shellac, so make sure to keep your nails healthy. I recommend taking a break from nail polish, especially gel or Shellac, to allow the nail to get fortified.” —JSC
The products every gel enthusiast should stock in their beauty cabinet:
“I created two of my newest base coats for the sole purpose of treating and color-correcting [the] natural nail. All About That Base CC Base Coat fills ridges, corrects discoloration, strengthens, and moisturizes nails. My Genie in a Bottle Illuminating Nail Tone Perfector uses violet pigments to neutralize dull, stained, or yellow nails, leaving them looking younger and healthier.” —DL
Exactly how long your nails need to actually recover:
“A break of at least one to two weeks per month is ideal.” —JSC
How to recover in the days following gel removal:
“Nowadays, base coats and treatments contain vitamins and minerals that strengthen and improve nail health. All of mine contain unique nutrient and vitamin blends for continued nail health, like Biotin and green tea.” —DL
The DIY intensive treatment that’s like a spa day for your hands:
“Spend a few days with an intensive moisturization program. Make sure to follow your cuticle regimen (properly filling, buffing, using a cuticle remover, and pushing the cuticles), and then moisturize, moisturize, moisturize! Use an oil, a cuticle moisturizer, and a hand cream. If you REALLY want to whip hands and nails into shape, do this at night, and immediately lay hot towels over your hands, letting it soak in all the nutrients… And it feels amazing, too!” —DL
Exactly what and how to eat for stronger, happier nails:
“The best preventative against weak and splitting nails is cuticle oil that has additives for both hydrating and strengthening nails. Also, taking oral supplements will help keep nails strong. I often say that what’s good for your body is good for your nails. Eating a diet rich in biotin, omega-3 fatty acids, folic acid, zinc, iron, and calcium will strengthen your body and your nails.” —JSC