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 to remove gel nail polish from acrylic nails that won’t totally wreck your natural 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 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 become dry, brittle, weak, and even cracked). The good news is, that we talked to nail pro Krystal Tait to get some tried-and-true methods for removing gel nail polish from acrylic nails at home—no salon visit necessary.
Read on to get our expert’s best tips for removing gel at home.
The Filing Method
“The best method for removing gel is—hands down—the filing method,” says Tait. In nail salons, this particular method can be referred to as drilling because the tool itself looks something like a power drill.
“Filing is really the most effective and safest way to remove the gel polish from acrylics,” explains 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 nail polish 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 comfortable 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.” (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 takes a while, 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, adding that instead, you’ll want a non-acetone-based nail polish remover.
First, get a good nail file that has a decent 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, and a double boiler if you have one for cooking. 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 it into the larger bowl. Next, 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 not to stick your fingers in liquid that is too hot).
After that, you should be able to easily scrape the gel nail 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).
The Store-Bought Jar Method
Ah, the store-bought nail polish remover jar. Who amongst us doesn’t remember discovering these precious tools in our early teens and being mesmerized by their ease? Housing its very own acetone-soaked sponge, the novel product eliminated the need for cotton pads or additional accoutrements. Well, the same product can be used for removing gel nail polish from acrylic nails—sort of.
To start, head to your local drugstore and pick up a jar of non-acetone-based nail polish remover. When ready to begin the removal, crack open the jar and insert your finger into the small incision in the middle of the sponge. Twist the jar or swirl your finger around until you achieve the desired result (this make take a while). You can also rub your nail against the sponge to add more friction against the gel.
This method is by far the simplest but its pragmatism comes at a timely cost. While securing all of the necessary tools is almost effortless, it does take the longest to see even the most subtle results.
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.”