How to remove gel nail polish at home—a celebrity nail artist's step-by-step guide

An expert nail artist breaks down how to remove gel nail polish at home without damaging your natural nails

two close up shots of gel nail polish being removed from a woman's hands
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Two weeks of chip-free wear and glossy shine is exactly why we love a gel manicure. But time flies and eventually it will chip or come loose, so you need to know how to remove gel nail polish properly and safely to keep your natural nails healthy. 

Once the layer around the cuticle starts to lift it takes every ounce of self-control not to pick or rip it off. But it's imperative that you resist the urge, as picking at it causes major damage to the nail bed underneath, and you'll soon regret pulling it off—it's the very antithesis of how to get healthier nails

While going to the salon to have it removed by your nail tech is the best option, it is possible to carefully take off your gel manicure in the comfort of your own home. For an in-depth breakdown, we spoke to celebrity nail artist Michelle Humphrey who explained the best way to remove your gel manicure when you can't make it to an actual salon. 

Meet the expert on removing gel nail polish

  • Michelle Humphrey is a celebrity manicurist whose A-list clients have included Adele, Dua Lipa, Jodie Comer, Cate Blanchett and many more. Below she has explained to My Imperfect Life readers how to remove gel nail polish step by step for the best results. 

How to remove gel nail polish at home: the expert guide

What you need to remove gel nail polish at home

  • Nail file
  • Cuticle oil
  • Acetone or gel nail polish remover
  • Cotton wool pads
  • Foil (or wraps that combine this and the above item)
  • Orangewood stick 
  • Nail strengthener

1. Use a nail file to break down the top layer

"Before you apply nail polisher remover, take a coarse nail file and gently sand down the very top layer of polish as this effectively breaks the seal," says Humphrey. "If you skip this stage you'll find removal a nightmare!"

Tweezerman Professional Nail Files 3 Pack

Tweezerman Professional Nail Files 3 Pack

RRP: $7/£6.75

To make buffing off gel polish a breeze, turn to a trusted name like Tweezerman for your nail files. 

2. Protect your skin with cuticle oil

"Next, coat the skin surrounding your nails with cuticle oil to prevent dehydration from the acetone in the polish remover," Humphrey says. "I love Sally Hansen Vitamin E Nail and Cuticle Oil as its thick formula really nourishes nails."

Sally Hansen Vitamin E Nail and Cuticle Oil

Sally Hansen Vitamin E Nail and Cuticle Oil

RRP: $6.49/£7

A cult classic cuticle oil, Sally Hansen's formula will see you through general nail care as well as part of the gel removal process. 

3. Soak cotton pads in nail polish remover

While the pros use remover wraps that already have built-in cotton pads, you're able to achieve the same results using separate cotton pads and regular old kitchen foil.

First, cut aluminum foil into squares big enough to cover your nail tips. Then: "Place a cotton pad, cut in half and soaked in acetone or nail gel remover, in the middle of the aluminum foil," Humphrey says.

4. Wrap your fingertips with the pad in aluminum foil

The next step is to wrap your fingertips in the aluminum squares, making sure the cotton pad is secured against the nail. Then, wait 10 or 15 minutes to allow the polish to work its magic. Of course, if you do want to save yourself a step, there's no stopping you from shopping pre-made nail polish removal wraps for the job—though the same amount of time applies here. 

5. Gently push the gel with an orangewood stick

"Gently push any gel, that's come loose, off the nail plate using an orangewood stick," Humphrey says.

The polish should come loose easily: "Never force it," she stresses. "If necessary, re-wrap and repeat on the remaining polish, making sure you keep the cotton pad saturated in polish remover. Expect this process to take 30 to 45 minutes and always do one hand at a time."

6. File, buff, and apply more oil

Once all the gel has been removed, Humphrey recommends you gently file nails into your desired shape and buff the surface into a smooth, glossy shell. Then drench them in moisture with another layer of cuticle oil. 

7. Apply nail strengthener

"Nail strengthener is optional after removal, but great for when you’re having a break from gels," adds Humphrey, who recommends OPI's Nail Envy Sensitive & Peeling Formula Nail Strengthener. "Just ensure the nail is wiped clean of any excess cuticle oil first." 


OPI Nail Envy Nail Strengthener – Sensitive & Peeling

RRP: $18.95/£21

We're all familiar with that tell-tale sore feeling of weak nails, which is exactly what this hero formula from OPI, recommended by Humphrey, is designed to nip in the bud. Peeling nails, be gone. 

Is gel nail polish easy to remove at home?

It's not quite as easy as wiping away regular old nail polish but, yes, when you follow our above expert step-by-step guide gel polish is fairly easy to remove yourself—you just have to make sure you do it safely.

How do nail salons remove gel nail polish?

Nail salons gel removal process is often similar to the above, although many technicians will use an electric nail file to gently remove the top layers of polish. This saves quite a bit of time (and effort on your nail tech's part!) compared to manually filing your nails.

Fiona Embleton

Fiona Embleton is a multi-award-winning beauty editor who has tested over 10,000 products in her 10 years +  of writing and shooting beauty stories. For the past four years, she was the Senior Beauty Editor at Marie Claire, having previously worked in the role of Beauty Editor at both Stylist and Cosmopolitan. She has recently gone freelance and alongside My Imperfect Life, she has written for titles including ELLE UK, ELLE Canada, Buro 247, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Vogue Scandinavia, and ES Magazine. Beauty journalism allowed her to marry up her first-class degree in English Literature and Language (she’s a stickler for grammar and a self-confessed ingredients geek) with a passion for make-up and skincare, photography, and catwalk trends. She loves jumping on the latest internet-breaking beauty news, dissecting the best red carpet looks, and having the crème de la crème of dermatologists, make-up artists, and hairstylists on speed dial so she can tap them for the best advice. She’s a discerning beauty shopper and knows it can be confusing trying to navigate what’s hype and what really works. So if she really likes something, you can trust that she has reached that opinion by vetting it against everything else she’s ever tried. Her career highs? Interviewing Cate Blanchett and winning a Jasmine Award for the deeply personal feature Cancer Stole My Mother’s Scent.   

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