The Complete Guide To A Gel Manicure
Do you want to learn how to apply gel polish at home, and save yourself the cost of salon manicures? You have come to the right place. For me, regular nail polish is no longer able to keep up with constant hand washing, but getting to my nail tech every couple of weeks isn’t an option either. So I had to learn how to use gel nail polish to keep my nails looking great without wrecking them.
From prep to top coat, a gel manicure at home is a good way to pass the afternoon and will keep your nails looking great even when access to nail salons is less than guaranteed. Learning how to apply gel nail polish at home also opens the door to a whole new world of nail art and gel nail stamping. The possibilities are endless when you don’t need to work against the clock to avoid your polish drying mid-artwork.
Gel Nail Polish vs Regular
Wondering what’s the difference between nail lacquer vs gel polish is? To start with, gel nail polish, unlike regular nail polish, doesn’t dry in contact with air. While regular nail polish has solvents that evaporate, gel nail polish requires UV light to harden. Sure, gel will eventually harden if you wait long enough and expose it to sunlight but it will take forever. Regular nail polish is often dry in a few minutes, even quicker if you are using a quick dry top coat.
However the main difference between gel nail polish vs regular is how long it lasts after you cure it. Gel nail polish can easily last a couple of weeks, whereas a regular manicure won’t even get close to that before it chips beyond recognition. Even long wear gel-like regular nail polish will usually need to be replaced after a week.
And speaking of removal, removing gel nail polish takes considerably longer and requires acetone, unlike regular nail polish which will be gone with any nail polish remover, including those that are acetone free. However, if you know how to remove SNS nails at home safely or had to learn how to remove acrylic nails yourself you’ll see that learning how to take off gel nails at home is not difficult at all, just a bit time consuming.
When choosing between gel nail polish vs regular consider if you are willing to trade off ease of removal for durability. Want a manicure that looks pristine for a couple of weeks, but takes longer to apply and remove? choose gel. Want to a no-fuss, easy to apply manicure that you need to refresh every few days? Regular nail polish is the way to go.
Gel polish is usually a nail salon service, but if you learn how to apply gel polish at home and don’t mind spending a bit of money upfront on supplies you can perfectly give yourself a gel manicure every time you want.
Gel Nail Supplies
What do you need for a gel manicure at home? We’re focusing here on the supplies needed to actually apply gel nail polish, but you will also need to learn how to remove gel nail polish at home. You can buy a gel nail kit that has everything you’ll need, or you can choose the different items separately.
It is often worth sticking with the same brand for the different steps of your gel manicure, because often they are designed to work with each other. But it’s by no means absolutely necessary, and a lamp from a reputable manufacturer will work with many different types of gel nail polish.
The basic gel nail supplies include:
- Nail file and nail clipper
- Cuticle oil
- Cuticle pusher (or orangewood stick)
- Nail buffer
- Nail dehydrator or nail ph Bonder
- Isopropyl alcohol or wipes
- Cotton discs
- Gel polish base coat
- Gel polish color – Don’t be tempted to use regular nail polish here, wet nail polish will get sandwiched between two layers of gel and will never dry.
- Gel polish top coat
- A LED or UV lamp suitable for gel manicures
Are Salon Gel Polish Brands Better?
The best gel nail polish brands are usually salon only because that allows them to control the technical skills of the people applying them. What does this mean? Your nail salon technician will have been trained on using one or several specific nail gel polish brands for the best results. This includes exactly the optimal gel curing times, application techniques, etc… and the equipment that works best with that particular salon gel polish brand. This doesn’t mean -at all- that you can’t buy them online or use them to apply gel polish at home.
CND Shellac and Gelish are two very popular 3-step gel manicure brands offered by many salons. But they are not the only ones. DND, Kiara Sky and Orly also offer gel manicure systems, each of them with their own pros and cons. And there are hundreds of white label or indie brands that also sell gel nail polishes that claim to be compatible with
Whichever one you choose, it’s worth sticking with the full system. Some brands are only cured with LED lights, others are good with UV or LED lamps but the timings may be different. Some brands such as Kiara Sky only require two layers so no base coat needed, while Orly makes gel nails with vitamins that add some nail care benefits to a gel manicure. They all have different ranges of colors and finishes.
Overall, CDN Shellac requires no nail buffing and it’s more gentle on your nails, but lasts less than other options such as DND or Gelish. The range of colors is also more limited, but any salon gel polish brands will have a large enough variety of colors for most day to day needs.
As you can see, the options are endless. But I would first choose a system I like and then find a lamp that works with it. If you are a regular salon manicure user, it may be worth asking what gel nail brands carry as you’ll know you aren’t allergic and you like the end result.
How To Use Gel Nail Polish
Gel nail polish behaves differently than regular nail varnish, and it may take a bit of time to get used to it. Remember, practice makes perfect! The best bit about it is that it doesn’t dry until you cure it under the lamp, so you have time to clean up any mishaps. But you need to clean them up quickly, because you don’t want the polymers in gel polish to be in contact with your skin too long. Anything dripping outside the nail plate could cause an allergy over time. So if you get any nail polish outside the nail, clean it up immediately with a wood stick, before curing the nail.
Start by preparing your nails, cutting and filing them to your desired shape. This tutorial is about how to apply gel polish at home, on your natural nails. If you are looking at building nail extensions to increase length you will need to check out more advanced techniques, such as gel builder or acrylic nails. Remove any trace of previous nail polish, either by soaking off with acetone gel, acrylics or powder nails or just with your favourite nail polish remover.
Use a cuticle oil to very gently push back the cuticle. Most people will advice against using a nail file or scissors to cut off your cuticles, and that’s for a good reason. Your cuticle is there to protect your nail plate, and while pushing back dead skin is fine cutting into the actual live cuticle can lead to nail infections and a whole lot of pain.
Depending on what nail system you are using, use a nail buffer to gently, very gently, buff the top layer of your nail. This will give the gel polish a better base to adhere to.
Your nails are now nearly prepped to apply gel nail polish but there is probably dust on them. Use a gel nail cleaning wipe to ensure the nail surface is free from any dust or oil. You can use a piece of a paper towel soaked in isopropyl alcohol to do this if you don’t want to use pre-soaked nail wipes. This step is incredibly important: if there is oil in your nails, your brand new gel nails will start lifting off within hours.
Optionally you can add a coat of nail bonder here, some people need it and some don’t. If your gel manicure doesn’t seem to last long, a good nail bonder will adjust the ph of your nail and ensure optimal adherence for the gel base coat.
How To Apply Gel Polish
Ready for your gel manicure at home? Here starts the fun bit.
Learning how to apply gel nail polish is a bit of trial and error, particularly if you are used to regular nail varnish. You need to use very thin layers, and cure in between each layer. A thick, gloppy layer won’t cure properly and your manicure will soon have dents and smudges. You will also need to cure each layer below your UV or LED lamp for the time indicated by the manufacturer.
Start with a layer of base coat, then at least two layers of color and a top coat to give it a glossy finish and protect your manicure. Some brands won’t require a base coat, so always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Learn how to cap your nail for a longer lasting gel manicure. This means making sure to do a swipe of polish on the free edges of your nail, not only on top. This will reduce the chances of your brand new manicure chipping or peeling off your nail after application.
How To Dry Gel Nail Polish
Learning how to apply gel polish is only half of it, the other half is making sure you know to dry gel nail polish properly. This is a process called curing, and it requires either a UV or LED lamp. Choosing the right lamp for your gel manicure will go a long way towards ensuring its success!
On to how to dry gel nail polish: after applying the gel polish to your fingers (do one hand at a time to avoid accidental smudges) just put your fingertips inside the lamp for the recommended curing time. Do this in between each layer and do not take shortcuts: the key to a long lasting at home gel manicure is making sure the gel is properly hardened. Light colors usually cure quicker than darker colors, but always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
How To Apply Gel Polish Tips and Tricks
In order to have the best at home gel manicure, keep in mind the following:
- Shake your nail polish and top and base coats well. Very well. In order to avoid bubbles, the best way to do this is by rubbing it between your palms instead of shaking it up and down. If your polish is too gloopy, there are specific gel nail polish thinners that will get them back to the right consistency. Remember: You want very thin layers. And you can’t do thin, even layers with gloopy nail polish.
- If you are concerned about UV skin exposure, apply a sunscreen to your fingers (not your nails!) or wear blackout fingerless gloves. However, it’s important to learn how to use your gel lamp properly. Your nails need to be fully under the lights to actually cure, but that doesn’t mean your finger should.
- A good nail cuticle oil is just irreplaceable. Make your own nail oil or buy a good quality one, and use it often.
- If your top coat feels tacky after curing it for the required time, you will need a nail cleanser and no lint nail wipe to wipe it off. Some top coats are advertised as “no-wipe” and won’t require this step.
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. In my experience, using a top coat, base coat and pigments from the same brand works best. But you can do trial and error to figure out what works for you.
- Gel nail polish is perfect for stamping and nail art because it won’t dry until you put it under the lamp. So you can take your time and perfect the design, and even wipe out any mistakes pre-curing with a nail wipe. Experiment!
As you can see, learning how to apply gel nail polish yourself is not too complicated! You will get better with practice but if you know how to paint your nails you’ll be getting professional looking manicures in absolutely no time.