While it's always best to refresh a gel manicure at the nail salon, sometimes you're left with no choice but to take matters into your own hands. (Pun intended.) If you have the gel on top of an acrylic set, swapping out your hue can be extra daunting. Luckily, there are methods of removal that won't totally wreck your nails—you just need the right supplies at home.
We have one crucial piece of advice before diving into which tools to use: Resist the urge to peel or bite your gel polish, which—let's be honest—occasionally seems like the easiest solution to your manicure woes. It's never a good idea. If you have acrylics underneath, biting and picking can damage the its surface, making for an uneven canvas for future polish. (It's even worse if your natural nails are the next layer, as picking will take a layer of your nail with it—causing your natural nails to get dry, brittle, weak, and even cracked.)
The good news is, we talked to the pros to get some tried-and-true methods for removing gel polish from acrylic nails at home—no salon visit necessary. Read on to get their best tips.
The Filing Method
"The best method for removing gel is—hands down—the filing method," says Krystal Tait, a licensed nail technician with over 10 years of experience and owner of Brooklyn-based salon Noir Nails. In nail salons, this particular method can be referred to as drilling—the tool itself, in fact, looks something like a power drill.
"Filing is really the most effective and safest way to remove the gel polish from acrylics," says Tait. But it might not be for everyone. "Salon drills can make people jump and there's always the possibility that you might take off more acrylic than you mean to. It also can feel like a hot burning sensation, but it's really just the friction of the gel being filed off."
In any case, this is definitely the best option if you want your gel removed from your acrylics. And if you're going to try it at home, we have a few tips. You need to have an e-file, or nail drill machine, that you feel comfortably using yourself at home. "Don't attempt this at home if you don't have an e-file," Tait says. "You risk cutting yourself if you don't." (You can find our fave at-home nail drill machines here.)
If you're comfortable maneuvering an at-home drill, you can start by filing the gel polish off with swift strokes in one direction at a time until the gel polish starts to come off. Keep moving the file around your nail and focusing on different areas until the gel polish is removed. Do it for each finger. It sort of takes awhile, but you can always put on some music.
The Tinfoil Method
You're probably familiar with the foil-finger technique from salon visits, but remember: With acrylics, you have to approach the gel-removal process differently. "Acetone can melt the structure of the acrylic, so I would never recommend it for removing gel polish on acrylics," says Tait.
Instead, you'll want a non-acetone based nail polish remover. (There are lots of options out there, including this popular one by Cutex.)
First, get a good nail file that has a good amount of friction-causing texture, and then buff the surface of the nails with it until there's no shiny coating left. Then, soak cotton balls in the non-acetone based nail polish remover until it's saturated. Place the soaked cotton ball on top of the nail, then wrap a square of tinfoil around it to keep it in place. Repeat for all fingers, leave on for 10–20 minutes, and you should be able to wipe the gel polish off with the cotton balls after they've soaked. If that doesn't work, try scraping them with a metal nail file or wooden stick. (This is also a good time to cut or push back your cuticles, and add some cuticle oil, too.)
While this is an effective method, it can be difficult and tedious to cut and apply individual squares of aluminum foil to your own fingers, which is why pre-cut sets exist. Either way, if you're committed—or have an extra set of hands at home—you should be good to go. Just make sure to be gentle with the acrylics after soaking.
The Hot Water Method
For this method, you'll want non-acetone based nail polish remover again, and a double boiler if you have one for cooking. (And no, we're not making fondue here.) If you don't have a double boiler, two bowls—one slightly larger than the other—should work just fine.
First, boil hot water and pour into the larger bowl, and pour your non-acetone based polish remover into the smaller bowl. Then, soak your fingers in the smaller bowl for about ten minutes. (This goes without saying, but be careful to not stick your fingers in liquid that is too hot.)
After that, you should be able to easily scrape the gel polish off with a metal nail file or wooden stick without damaging the acrylic underneath. (Again: This is a great time to push back or cut your cuticles and add some oil to soothe the area around the acrylics.)
Remember, regardless of which technique you use, the most important thing is to keep your nails healthy under the acrylics year-round. "It's good to periodically take a break from acrylics to keep your nails healthy, and just get a normal manicure with regular polish," Tait says. "Also, cut your cuticles, take your vitamins, and don't keep them too long. The longer the nail, the more you risk bumping or damaging them, and that's never good."