So Your Gel Has Started Peeling Off—Here's What to Do

manicured hand

@thevicstyles / Design by Camden Dechert

We've all been there: You spend ages working out exactly which gel nail polish color will go with your wardrobe but then just a few days later, you take a look down at your keyboard ready to marvel at your fine fingertips and notice that something isn't right. Right there, at the tip of your forefinger on your hand, your gel has started to peel. Nightmare.

First, you'll go through a phase of denial, pretending that everything is fine, but then a huge wave of utter disappointment comes crashing over you when you realize it won't be long before the rest of your nails follow suit and start flaking. And if you're anything like us, stage three is full of temptation to pick, peel, and bite the polish back down to the bare nail. And if you didn't know already, that isn't a great idea. Keep scrolling to find out exactly how to fix peeling gel polish

What Makes Gel Nails Different?

While regular nail polish can just be painted on, gel requires a little more care before application. Natalia Urbina, head nail tech at Local Honey in Brooklyn, says that "Most of the steps are similar to a regular manicure. However, removing natural oils and dehydrating the nail plate is required for a long-lasting gel manicure." After each coat of polish, the gel is cured with an LED/UV light instead of just air-drying, making the manicure extra strong and sure to last at least two weeks. Here's how to make sure your gel nails don't chip.

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Whatever You Do, Don't Pick

If you like nothing more than picking at a two-week-old manicure, let this be a warning to you. "Our nails are made up of about 25 layers of keratinized skin cells, and peeling off gels will take off those top protective layers, causing the nail to become thinner, weaker, and uneven," says nail expert and manicurist Cherrie Snow.

Urbina reiterates how bad picking is for your nails. "When you peel off any nail enhancement you rip off layers of your nail plate and make your nail weaker and cause your nails to chip more. It's a vicious cycle," she says.

Do not pick or peel gel nail polish. Jeopardizing the strength of your nails in this way can lead to white spots and stress breaks.

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Put a Layer of Topcoat on Chipped Nails

Clear bottle with black text
Seche Vite Dry Fast Top Nail Coat $5

So in short, if you do notice your manicure has started to peel, do not start picking. Urbina's three-step method? "File nail where the chip happened, don't pick nails, and seal with topcoat." It's as easy as that. For those who have busy hands and can't stay still, a fast-drying topcoat, like the Dry Fast Top Coat from Seche Vite, will keep you smudge-free.

After filing near the chip, apply a thin layer over the top of the polish, and seal in the edge by painting over the tip of the nail. This will help your manicure hold out until you can get to the salon to have the gels removed.

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Prevent Chipping When You Can

Grey manicure against foilage

 (Christina Vartanova / Getty Images)

As with many things, prevention is far better than attempting a cure. Snow recommends wearing gloves when washing up and cleaning, as well as avoiding opening boxes or cans to increase the longevity of your gel manicure. For those nail-biters out there—keep your hands away from your mouth. It can be tempting, we know, but for the safety of your manicure (and your own personal health), nix the finger-chomping.

"Don't use your nails as tools!" Urbina echoes. She also says to avoid super hot water when washing hands and showering. If you haven't gotten a chip yet, she recommends a quick topcoat, like Sally Hansen's Insta-Dri Anti-Chip Top Coat ($5), just in case.

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Keep Hands Moisturized

"Apply hand cream after every hand wash, and regularly massage cuticle oil over the gelled nail to encourage flexibility and prevent chipping," Snow adds. It's also worth considering the brand of gel. Snow uses Bio Sculpture Gel, which doesn't require the use of primers, bonders, or harsh buffing to be removed.

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Invest in Cuticle Oil

yellow bottle with black text and top
Famous Names Dadi Oil $8

If you do end up picking at your nails, make sure you still keep your hands and nails moisturized. Urbina's personal favorite cuticle oil—which she recommends using twice a day—is the Famous Names Dadi Oil, which is full of nourishing ingredients like jojoba oil and vitamin E.

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Use Thin Coats of Polish

Whether it's a home mani or done by a professional, the key to a long-lasting, non-peeling gel manicure is thin, smooth layers. It can be easier to do a thick, single layer to save time, but it won't help you in the long run: Thick layers will peel easier, or even worse, they can be prime for the picking. (Meaning the moment you feel a tiny lift, you'll be digging at your nails). To avoid any of this, start thin and build your color. You'll love the outcome and save yourself some anguish.

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Keep Your Hands Dry

It may sound redundant, but try to keep your hands as dry as possible the day of your manicure. The less malleable and flexible your nails are, the more likely they are to break or get caught on something, and keeping hands dry is a great way to avoid this. Moisture and nail polish are true enemies for life, and you want to keep them far, far away from each other.

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Keep Your Hands Away From The Clippers

We know, we know—it can be deeply tempting to make sure your nails aren't growing too long, you have a jagged edge—plenty of reasons to pull out your clipper and nail file, and go to town. Using clippers and files will break down the seal, which will cause lifting and peeling, so just let your nails be.

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Take Downtime Between Manicures

Ever heard of "nail dehydration?" Your nails need access to water and air as much as the rest of your body, and going back-to-back with gel manicures is like suffocating your nailbeds, which can lead to damage and breakage. Both wearing gel manicures, as well as the removal process, can be a lot for your fingers to handle, so take time between gel applications. Your fingers will thank you.

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Make Sure You're Not Waiting Too Long

green manicure against furry fabric with silver rings

(Christina Chauskina / Unsplash)

It can be massively tempting to want to see how long your gel manicure can last for without chipping, but try to avoid doing anything of the sort. A gel mani should last you two to three weeks maximum before running the risk of potential damage to your nail beds. Going too long with gel on your nail runs the risk of weakened nails, and a potential for moisture to cause some issues—once the gel starts to lift, it can lead to moisture gathering under the gel, which can be difficult to clean and can lead to bacterial growth.

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Have Professionals Remove Your Gel

It's best to leave gel removal to the pros. "The removal at a salon will probably go quicker and presumably more safely. Tools and techniques that quality nail technicians use will remove the top coat more thoroughly, allowing acetone to soak color gel quicker," Urbina says.

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Take Care of Your Nails After

To help your nails recover after peeling gel off, moisturizing is still key. Try to stop picking at your nails and the skin around them while they both heal. Since picking off gel weakens the nail, it'll take a while for your nails to grow back to their regular strength. To prevent more breakage and weakness, keep your nails short while they grow back and give them some extra TLC, too.

So, if you do pick, it's not the end of the world. Just remember to hold off if you can, and always take time to moisturize and protect your hands to keep your nails looking fresh.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Nanda S, Grover C. Utility of gel nails in improving the appearance of cosmetically disfigured nails: experience with 25 casesJ Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2014;7(1):26-31. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.129968

  2. Rieder EA, Tosti A. Cosmetically induced disorders of the nail with update on contemporary nail manicuresJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2016;9(4):39-44.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Gel manicures: tips for healthy nails.

  4. Hewlett AL, Hohenberger H, Murphy CN, et al. Evaluation of the bacterial burden of gel nails, standard nail polish, and natural nails on the hands of health care workersAm J Infect Control. 2018;46(12):1356-1359. doi:10.1016/j.ajic.2018.05.022

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