There's nothing quite as satisfying as having freshly-painted nails. Similarly, there's nothing quite as unsatisfying as having freshly-painted nails that chip within days, if not minutes, of leaving the salon. As a result, gel manicures, known for their long-lasting, chip-free finishes, have become a staple in the beauty world. The only problem is that they often cost nearly twice as much as a regular manicure.
Luckily for us, there's a way to get around this little financial quandary. The answer lies within at-home gel manicures. Like professional shellac nails, these DIY manis are guaranteed to last longer than a classic paint job—so long as you follow all the necessary steps, that is.
To ensure that you know how to perfect the at-home technique, we talked with a pro to get all their must-follow tips. Check out what she had to say, below.
How to Craft the Perfect Gel Mani at Home
- Wooden stick
- 80-grit nail file
- Lint-free cotton wipes
- Alcohol or gel polish cleanser
- Gel base coat
- Gel color polish
- Gel topcoat
- Cuticle oil
- Quality LED lamp
Start by shaping and buffing the nail
“First, make sure your nails are clean, groomed, and free of old polish," says Nybia Snowden, the spa director at Courted, a premium day spa in the DC Metro Area. She then instructs to push cuticles back and file the nail shape of your choice before lightly buffing the nail bed and free edges. Doing so provides a little bit of texture for the gel to adhere to.
Clean and prime nails
Once your nails are shaped and buffed, Snowden recommends applying alcohol with a lint-free wipe to clean the surface. "If you have particularly oily nails or would like a long-lasting gel manicure, I recommend applying a thin layer of primer evenly over the nails," she says.
Apply gel base coat
“After the primer, apply the gel base coat that is designed to bond the gel to your natural nail while also protecting your nails from the color coat,” Snowden instructs.
Tip: Some gel nail polishes come with base coat built-in (like China Glaze Gelaze polishes), in which case you can skip this step. Just be sure to closely read the packaging to ensure you're doing everything you can to support and maintain your nail health.
Cure the base coat
“Unlike traditional polish, gel polish is very thick and doesn’t dry until you cure it," Snowden explains. "Once the base coat is on, cure the gel under the LED lamp according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Generally, the base coat (first layer) requires 30 seconds of cure time. When your nails come out of the lamp, they will still be slightly wet. This is normal.”
Apply color and cure
“Similar to the base coat, you want to use a small amount of product," Snowden says. "Start just below the cuticle and run a light layer of product up and along the free edge to cap the color." Before curing, she suggests running a wooden stick along the sides of the nail to remove excess product that may lift the gel. Dip it in a little bit of polish remover to speed up the process.
If this is your first time attempting a DIY gel mani, Snowden recommends curing one nail at a time, as waiting too long before curing can end up causing chips. "Avoid slowly applying the color to your nails to prevent the gel from pulling up on the sides," she says.
Tip: To get the polish as close to the cuticle as possible, Snowden recommends using a small scrubbing motion to push the polish out to the edge without painting it over. "Make sure to cover the entire surface and follow with full strokes," she says. "Additionally, dragging product along the free edge of the nail prevents shrinking and premature chipping to achieve a long-lasting gel manicure.”
Apply a second layer of color and finish with topcoat
“After the first coat is on, you can decide if you need a second coat to achieve a more opaque look," Snowden says. "Once you cure the second layer completely, apply the topcoat which will serve as a shield, and add more shine. Apply the topcoat thinly, covering the entire nail and capping the free edge.”
Tip: If the nail surface looks uneven after applying the topcoat, Snowden says flipping your hand over can help. "Flip your hand over for 15 seconds while the topcoat is still wet. Gravity will pull the topcoat to the middle of the nail and will give the appearance of a nice natural round nail before curing.”
Cure one last time
Here's where the UV light comes in. (If you don't yet own one, this $13 Amazon lamp has rave reviews.) “Quickly insert your hand into the lamp to cure and set, ideally one minute for each hand," Snowden says. "Once your topcoat has cured, apply a small amount of alcohol or gel cleanser to a lint-free wipe. Swipe lightly across each nail to remove any sticky layers.”
Rehydrate nails and cuticles
Finally, Snowden suggests finishing with a nourishing cuticle oil or serum [Ed. note: We love the Olive & June Cuticle Serum, $16] to rehydrate the skin and cuticles. "Your finished product will be a spa-quality gel manicure right in the comfort of your own home."
A Final Note
Gel manicures—both professional and DIY—can be damaging on your nails if you get them too frequently or use harsh chemical polishes. One way to avoid the excess damage is to rehab your nails with gel systems like Zoya's Naked Manicure Gelie-Cure Foundation Pro Kit + Pro LED Light ($85). This system includes a restorative nail serum, reparative base, 10-free polish, and all the accessories and tools you need to bring a DIY manicure to life.
If, on the other hand, you want to take a break between your DIY gel manis without missing out on a killer nail look, be sure to stock your nail collection with polishes that are built to last. All Olive & June nail polishes feature a 7-free formula that's been proven to last up to seven days with zero chips in sight (we especially love the 5 Shades of Grey Kit, $48, which makes the mismatched nail art trend a total no-brainer). In other words, it's a great gel alternative when you don't have the time or patience to deal with shellac.
Next up: learn how to file your nail into a squoval shape.