What’s a gel manicure and how does it differ from regular polish?
So, what am I actually talking about? I’m talking about gel manicures using gel polish that’s cured with an LED light. I use gel or shellac products for manicures because even a good quality regular polish will only last me a maximum of four days. And that’s provided it’s an incredible manicure and I avoid doing the dishes or anything overly strenuous with my hands for that period of time. By contrast, a good gel or shellac manicure can last me a full three weeks without chipping—seriously—and I can do all the dishes I want. (Spoiler: I don’t actually want.) In many cases, I only replace my gel manicure at the three week mark not because it’s chipped, but because my nails have grown out.
Don’t you ever get manicures in a salon?
But wait a second, Mary, I’ve seen you on instastories getting your nails done before! Absolutely. I’m not saying I never get my nails done. You’re all well aware of how much I love Glamsquad, and having their in-home offerings every month or two is one of my favorite treats. I actually love these appointments as a way of maintaining proper cuticle maintenance with a professional trimming, which isn’t necessary for me every single time, but rather just every 2nd or 3rd manicure. Also, getting your nails done is always a fun, relaxing self-care moment and certainly something I like to indulge in every now and then. (Especially when a hand and foot massage are included omg.)
Right now, however, with the coronavirus pandemic keeping everyone at home, going to the nail salon is absolutely not an option. But, outside of global health crises putting all of us on lockdown, there are also times when you simply can’t make it to the salon. When you have a busy schedule, work full-time and/or have kids, regular nail salon appointments aren’t always realistic. You also maybe just don’t feel like dropping $100+ on your nails every few weeks. Whatever your reasoning, learning to do your own gel manicures is a skill that will pay off.
Can you save money by doing a gel manicure at home?
Here’s the shocker: The cost of all the professional-quality supplies (listed below) for a gel manicure at home is actually less than the price of one gel manicure in a salon—and you’ll get far more use out of these products than just one manicure. Even just a bottle of polish can last years depending on frequency of use. The other products you need (detailed below) will last even longer.
Prices for gel manicures vary depending on where you live and the salons you go to, but a quick review of local salons in NYC shows gel or shellac manis priced between $50 and $70. Gel pedicures go for between $50 and $80. Therefore, at least in NYC, you’re dropping at least $100 (and that’s not including tip) every time you get your nails and toes tended to. It’s a lovely treat. But maybe not so realistic for regular maintenance.
All the products and equipment you need for an at-home gel or shellac manicure:
Below is the full list of products you need for your in-home gel (or shellac) experience. And please note that these are salon-quality products. These are not dumbed-down amateur products that are going to lead to nails that chip off in two days. These are the exact products and tools used by salons so the result is a manicure that’s just as amazing.
1. Nail Clippers (literally whatever you have on hand! If you don’t have any, these clippers are great.)
2. Cuticle Trimmer
3. Nail File
4. Wooden Nail Stick
5. Nail Buffer
6. Cotton Pads
7. Rubbing Alcohol
8. Nail Polish Remover (Acetone)
9. Gel Base Coat & Top Coat Set
10. Gel Color Polish (My favorites here, here and many more color options here)
11. Cuticle Oil
12. LED lamp (that’s the lamp I have and love, but this is also a great option that’s even more affordable)
13. Disposable Changing Pad to protect your surface (I happen to have these on hand for travel with a baby, but you can use paper towels or anything you have on hand!)
14. Gel Polish Remover Clips (These aren’t 100% necessary, but are very helpful in safely removing your gel which I explain more below!)
Many of the above products you likely already own, but even if you were to buy everything brand new (which you probably won’t because you probably own several of the above items like nail clippers and nail files already), we’re talking less than $150 in startup costs to give yourself a near-infinite number of gel manicures and pedicures. Not bad when you consider this is basically the cost of ONE trip to a salon for both a gel manicure and pedicure (not including tip).
My Favorite Gel Nail Polish Colors
When it comes to polish, I typically prefer OPI Gelcolor. It’s what I’m used to from my salon. I love the range of colors, and the soak off process is easy without harming my nails. I also love that their gel polish offerings mirror their regular polish. So if you’ve always loved cult-favorite colors like “Bubble Bath,” you’ll have the option to wear it in gel polish, too.
There are countless kinds of gel nail products available, and they’re not all the same quality. Some are harsher, require filing off, etc. So be certain to read packaging and do your research on their recommended removal techniques.
As far as colors, my favorite deep burgundy red polish that I wear on my toes essentially year-round is OPI GelColor in “Got The Blues For Red,” which I order via Walmart. My favorite color to wear on my hands in the summertime is “Lisbon Wants Moor,” which is a beautiful opaque light blush, and in the winter I actually use “Got The Blues For Red” on both my hands and feet most often. When shopping for gel polish, I’ve found great OPI GelColor options on Overstock.com as well as Walmart.
The final polish products you’ll need, as listed above in the equipment list, is a good base and top coat, and I use this set. In my opinion, you should ignore the reviews on these particular products because they appear to be from people who either didn’t realize an LED light was required, or people who don’t know how to remove gel manicures at home. I use these products with every manicure. They are both long-lasting and easy to use if you know the proper technique (detailed below).
How To Do A Salon-Quality Gel Manicure At Home:
Below is a step-by-step guide for creating a perfect salon-quality gel manicure at home. You can also watch my IGTV video showcasing the process as well here. Before getting started, however, know that polishing your dominant hand can be challenging for some. Patience and practice make it absolutely possible. So, just go slowly and take your time. If you’re really struggling, try making an evening of it with friends or family (obviously not during COVID-19 social distancing!) and polish each other’s dominant hand while you get used to this process.
Always start by applying an SPF to your hands, avoiding the nail beds themselves. Your LED light exposes you to a very small amount of UV radiation. So it’s always better to be safe than sorry. To be extra careful, you can actually buy these gloves to wear so the only things exposed to light are your actual nail beds. You won’t need to worry about the actual nail beds, because light doesn’t penetrate through the nail.
Cut and shape your nails the way you like them, gently pushing back your cuticles and completing any cuticle trimming and filing you need.
Wipe down your nails with alcohol on a cotton pad to remove any dust, oils, etc. Any moisture, oils, or lotion on your actual nail beds can result in a manicure that doesn’t last.
Apply a thin layer of base coat and cure in your LED lamp. The time will depend on the polish you’re using. For the OPI GelColor polish I use, I go 60 seconds with each layer and 90 seconds for the top coat.
Note: Avoid touching your nails until you’ve completely finished with all the steps in this list because they will be sticky at every layer even though they’ve been cured under the LED lamp.
Apply a thin layer of color polish and repeat the 60-second curing process under the LED lamp. Before each layer, make sure you’re not allowing any polish to bleed into your cuticles because that can cause the polish to lift. If polish bleeds, run a file or wooden stick along the sides of the nail to remove excess polish before curing the layer under the lamp. Dipping a wooden stick in polish remover can make this easier.
Apply a thin second and even third coat, curing for 60 seconds in between, to reach the opacity of color you prefer. I typically apply two coats, but some polish colors look better with three coats. With each color coat, it’s better to apply thin layers rather than thick layers for the sake of longevity. If the polish is applied too thickly, the light may not cure it all the way through which will result in your manicure lifting and/or chipping. When in doubt, apply three thin layers of polish rather than two thick layers. I also recommend dragging a small amount along the front edge of your nail, to prevent chipping. Continue to cure your nails for 60 seconds between each layer.
The last coat is a thin layer of top coat, followed by a 90-second cure. Just like the other layers, be careful not to allow the top coat to bleed into your cuticles. If this happens, run a file or wooden stick along the sides of the nail to remove excess polish before curing.
Once the top coat has been cured under the LED lamp, saturate a cotton pad with alcohol and thoroughly wipe down your nails. Don’t worry about smudging them. The LED light has already completely dried your nails. Wiping with alcohol simply removes the sticky residue that remains on top. As mentioned above, wiping with alcohol is not necessary between layers, only after the top coat.
Finish with cuticle oil and lotion.
How do you safely remove gel manicures without damaging your nails?
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT peel off your gel or shellac manicure. It must be removed carefully to prevent damage to your nails. Of course, if your nails peel on their own, don’t panic. It’s happened to me many times before if I apply a coat too thickly or accidentally allow polish to run into my cuticles a bit. It’s not the end of the world, but, you want to avoid picking the polish off if you can avoid it because you can bring layers of your nail with it—leading to damaged, thin, brittle nails.
There are many types of gel polishes available, so make sure to read the packaging on your polish’s preferred removal technique. Some need a light buffing prior to soaking in acetone and some simply come off by soaking alone. With my gel polish, I am able to soak my nails in acetone for 10 minutes (either in a small bowl or with these great clips!), and it will begin to slough off. There is no harsh peeling or filing required. If you’re having difficulty, very gently file off the topmost layer of polish (not touching any of your actual nail, just the polish!), so that the acetone soaking can penetrate the remaining layers more easily.
It’s very important to note that gel manicures can be hard on your nails if they are not removed properly. It also depends on the individual. Some people have sensitivity around the nails, or have nails that are naturally thin. If you notice any issues, take a break from manicures of any kind for a while to give your nails a rest. Personally, I don’t have any issues because I’m very careful about removal. Fully allowing them to soak and flake off rather than doing any peeling or harsh filing. Because of this, I will often go months at a time with fresh gel manicures every three weeks or so.
How does gel compare to dip nail polish? Is dip healthier or more long-lasting?
Dip (or powder) nails are the newest kid on the block. And, if it’s your preferred method, by all means, carry on! Personally, however, I prefer the gel/shellac method described above for many reasons. There are lots of myths around dip nails, but after much research, I’ve found many of them to be untrue, as outlined below.
First, some say that dip nails are a healthier option because dip powder contains calcium and vitamins. In reality, your nails can’t actually absorb these vitamins, even if they’re present in the polish or powder, so it doesn’t make a difference. When it comes to removal, dip is arguably more tedious and damaging to your nails because it requires more intense filing. To be fair, this filing is required by some gel and shellac polish, but at best, gel and dip powder have an equal potential for damaging your nails if they are over-filed or otherwise improperly removed.
Second, some say dip nails last longer, others say they don’t last as long because they’re susceptible to water and household cleaners. Gel polish is resistant to solvents, so that’s a non-issue, and as mentioned above, I typically have to remove my gel nail polish not because it has chipped but because my nail has grown out, so finding something that’s even longer lasting is unnecessary for me.
Third, one of the main reasons I’ve found that people get dip over gel is to avoid UV exposure. But as I’ve mentioned, the UV exposure is minimal with gel polish, and applying SPF helps mitigate any risk.
Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that there can be sanitation concerns with dip powder. Some salons have you dip your nails into powder used by other clients. Yikes. Gel manicures don’t come with this risk, and according to the Nail Manufacturers Council of the Professional Beauty Association, microbes do not survive in gel nail polish, so there is no risk of spreading bacterial infection when bottles of polish are shared among clients.
Lastly, it’s also worth noting that there are allergens in the base layer used in dip polish that cause sensitivity for some people.
All in all, those are the primary reasons that I prefer gel or shellac manicures over dip powder manicures. This is to say nothing of the fact that dip nails are also typically more expensive than gel manicures, so the more affordable option (especially if you can do it at home!) is the winner in my book.
I hope this gel manicure tutorial was helpful! Let me know if you have any questions below in the comments!