How To Do Gel Manicures At Home

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Fine, I’ll say it: Regular manicures are a waste of time. Why would I spend $20 for nail art that’s going to chip off the minute I try to pry my credit card from my wallet on the way out of the salon? Or waste an hour of my life f*cking up my cuticles for a night out only to have Hannibal Lecter hands before I leave for the pre-game? If you have a massive nail-biting compulsion like me (or just like having pretty nails), gel manicures are the only way to go. Cheaper than acrylics and longer-lasting than CVS press-ons, gel manis go as hard as you do, and you can count on them to stay perfect for an entire wedding weekend, Miami vacation, or music festival excursion. And thanks to ~science~, you can give yourself salon-worthy gel manicures at home without ever leaving your couch.

Vina Ferratt, a LeChat Nails Educator, says the most important part of any pro-style DIY manicure is to properly clean and prep your nails. Start by scrubbing your nails with an antibacterial soap, like you would wash your face, then push back your cuticle.

We’ve seen nail technicians do this a million times, and it’s the perfect excuse to treat yourself to a mini-spa experience. Fill a bowl with warm water to soften your skin, and soak your nails for five to ten minutes. Add a little warm jojoba or coconut oil to the water for extra moisturization (and extra luxury). Once your cuticles are nice and soft, dry your hands with a clean towel, add a small amount of oil or lotion to your cuticles, and let it soak in for three to five minutes before gently pushing your cuticles down with an orangewood stick. Use a warm, damp washcloth to exfoliate the cuticles off. Take nippers to trim any hangnails or remove any stubborn final pieces of cuticle from your nails — we don’t recommend cuticle cutting because that sh*t is better left to the professionals. Wash your hands once you’re finished to remove any excess oil or lotion. Next, Vina recommends using rubbing alcohol (75% and up) to cleanse the nail.

“Rubbing alcohol will act like an astringent and bring your nail to the proper pH level while eliminating any dust and debris from your nail,” Vina explained.

Now that your nails are clean, prepped, and ready to go, you can apply a coat of primer as you would for any at-home manicure. Once your primer is set, apply your base gel coat and cure. Follow up with two coats of your favorite gel color, then apply a gel top coat and cure, again.

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To “cure” your gel manicure at home, you will need a UV or LED machine. This might sound fancy, but there are tons of options available on Amazon (or in stores, if you’ve got ethical qualms with Amazon Prime) for as low as $11. The light is necessary because gel manicures don’t cure under oxygen like regular manicures. In fact, oxygen prevents the top layer from curing. As of now, there has been no definitive causal link between UVA rays in gel manicure lamps and skin cancer (yes, these UV rays and that pesky UV radiation from the sun are one and the same), but as Self reported in 2016, there’s no proof that they’re one-hundred percent safe, either. If you’re worried, there are fingerless UV protection gloves you can buy online to protect your skin while you cure your nails, which is probably a great option if you’ll be using curing lamps on the reg. When it comes to carcinogens, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

It’s also important to cure your nails for the correct amount of time — there is such a thing as over-curing your gels, which will make them a little melty and a lot harder to take off — but most home lamps include a built-in timer, and product reviews should help you determine how many cycles you’ll need to properly dry your polish. Oh, and under-curing is a Big No, too:

“When doing an at-home gel manicure, make sure you don’t skimp on the time you put your hands under the gel light in-between each coat layer,” Stacy Caprio from Deals Scoop shared. “It can be tempting to quickly put your hands in and out or even skip a full layer and UV light session. However, the UV light is the part that really sets the manicure and helps it last so long, so it is important to follow the instructions and keep your hands under the light for as long as you are supposed to.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for curing times because it depends on lamp wattage and the formula of your polish. This part of doing a gel manicure at home sounds scary, but it really isn’t. If you’re feeling intimidated or don’t know where to start, some companies sell full starter kits with polish, a lamp, and fun extras like cuticle oil or base gel for DIY beginners. Just try to avoid polishes with Formaldehyde, toluene, or dibutyl phthalate (DBP), three known carcinogens found in many polishes. Sally Hansen, Zoya, RGB, or Jinsoons are usually a safe bet.

After your nails are cured and perfect, wipe away any tacky residue with rubbing alcohol and rub cuticle oil over your cuticle area to rehydrate your skin. When you’re ready to remove the polish in a few weeks, you’ll need to soak them in acetone wrapped in foil, which can massively sap your nails of their natural moisture. Aftercare is important, so be sure to give your skin, nails, and cuticle some TLC once the gels are removed. Teen Vogue recommends rehydrating with a thick emollient like Aquaphor or an overnight nail mask. They also encourage giving yourself a gel honeymoon between applications to let your nails rehydrate and heal.

Alternate application styles such as simply adding a gel top coat to seal-in nail wraps can prevent the gel from ever touching your nail plate, and they’re a great alternative if you want to give your nails two weeks off from actual gels without sacrificing your picture-perfect manicure.

“Once you have these steps down, then practice, practice, practice,” Vina reminded us. “You’ll have people complimenting you on your nails in no time!”