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Natalie Holbrook is a hopeless optimist and prodigious over-exaggerator living in a tiny apartment in New York City with her husband Brandon and her fat baby, Henry August (they call him Huck). She blogs at Hey Natalie Jean, a love letter from her family to New York City, and where she capture all the lovely little things that make up a wonderful life.

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At-Home Gel Manicures: Can It Be Done?

By Natalie |

Well. I have good news and I have bad news.

First the good news… Yes! It is entirely possible to buy a home-use UV lamp and some gel type nail polishes and do a full gelish or shellac manicure on yourself at home for a fraction of the cost (over time)! I’ve been playing with various methods and I have to say, yes. It can be done!

The bad news… Yeah, it’s probably not going to yield the same results as salon gel manicures most likely (sorry to say).

Let’s discuss this, shall we?

The fact of the matter is, it isn’t the equipment that makes a good gel manicure, it’s the manicurist. The equipment itself is fairly standard and fairly (fairly) inexpensive, and no gel polish that I’ve tried seems to be far and away better than any of the others. What it really comes down to is care and precision.

“Do you have what it takes?!?” (Said in a Rex Kwon Do voice please.)

Here is the basic HOW TO that will come with any gel product you purchase:

Step One: Prepare nails by washing hands, drying hands, pushing back and/or trimming cuticles, buffing the nail bed somewhat aggressively, and topping off with a swab of rubbing alcohol.

Step Two: Apply gel base coat. Dry for 30 seconds under lamp.

Step Three: Apply first coat of gel color. Dry for two minutes under lamp.

Step Four: Apply second coat of gel color. Dry for two minutes under lamp.

Step Five: Apply gel top coat. Dry for three minutes under lamp.

Step Six: Clean nail with a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol. (The top coat remains kind of waxy and sticky until this step.)

If you do decide to try the gel system at home (and, let’s be honest, in many cases it’s entirely worth it. I can get a full week’s worth out of an at-home gel manicure, as opposed to maybe three or four days max out of a normal Essie and Top Coat deal (as opposed to a solid three weeks out of a salon job)), here are 10 things to consider:

1. In my experience, the kind of lamp you purchase makes no real difference. I’ve used a Thermal Spa and a Gelish Pro-45 and both have yielded the same results. I might recommend the Thermal Spa if only because it’s bigger and can fit two hands (or feet) at once. It’s more about the number of minutes you let your fingers cure. Instructions will say 2-3 minutes between coats. I’d say three minutes three times and you’re getting somewhere.

2. The key is a really great buff job. These gels dry into a vinyl type finish, and when a home job comes off, it usually comes off in one giant nail-shaped peel. This is because your nail is oily and the gel polish will only adhere completely if you are very meticulous about it. How does it adhere so much better in a salon? I really think it has to do with buff skill. The  rubbing alcohol also seems to be key. You want clean, you want rough, you want dry.

3. You know what never seems to work for me? Those base coats. They work beautifully at the salon but I just can’t get it to work at home. So, I skip it. My manicure lasts much longer when I do (why is this?).

4. Know what works even better than skipping the base coat? Using your regular nail polish and just applying the gel top coat. Don’t use the UV lamp to dry your regular polish, just let it air dry as usual. But make sure it is fully dry before applying the top coat. If it’s even the slightest bit gummy, that top coat will seal in the gummy and they will never harden.

5. Thin coats. THIN COATS! Sooooo thin. Thin! Did you get that? Thin coats!

6. Be sure to direct a lot of attention to the tips of your nails. Run the polish wand horizontally across the edge to seal in the ends. This is how you prevent chips.

7. Watch your cuticles. Don’t let the polish get thick or heavy near your cuticles because this is where the polish wants to start to peel. Think thin thin thin. As little polish as you can use is best. (This might be redundant from point five but seriously. Thin.)

8. Have I mentioned? THIN COATS.

9. It is far easier to peel an at-home gel polish off than to do the recommended five-minute soak in acetone… mostly because soaking your fingers in acetone for too long is kind of painful in a strange way. And peeling is satisfying in that elementary school-Elmer’s glue kind of way. ;)

10. If you want to go all out on this and give it the full attempt, HERE is a link to the full CND Shellac at-home kit.

Good luck! And let me know how it goes!



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Natalie Holbrook is a hopeless optimist living in a tiny apartment in New York City with her husband Brandon and her fat baby, Henry August. She blogs at Hey Natalie Jean, a love letter from her family to New York City, and where she capture all the lovely little things that make up a wonderful life. Read bio and latest posts → Read Natalie's latest posts →

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One thought on “At-Home Gel Manicures: Can It Be Done?

  1. Hillaroo says:

    I use the base coat, color, top coat. I’ve never tried not using the base coat as its never given me a bad time, but I have started using TWO coats of the top coat and it has made all the difference to how long my home gel manicure lasts. Now I remove it when it grows out too much. I do file a little bit before I put the acetone on to let it soak up the acetone a bit quicker/better, but it makes a gel manicure worth it To me, all the hassle of time and effort to remove it isn’t worth it to me for only 7 or 8 days. I lurve to peel, but it always damages my nails, so I can’t :(

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