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What to Do After You’ve Picked Off Your Manicure

A womans's hand with chipped white nail polish.

Admit it: you’ve peeled the polish off your fingernails at least once in your life. Although this might seem harmless, you could actually cause some serious damage. Ready to learn how to properly remove your nail polish? A few easy steps are all it takes.

It’s so tempting to pick at your nail polish when it’s starting to chip—especially gel polish, as it delivers such a satisfying “peel.” Unfortunately, you’ll be doing more harm than good. If the deed has already been done, though, these simple tips and products will help you easily remove your manicure and repair any damage.

Why You Shouldn’t Peel Off Your Nail Polish

Your nails might seem hardy enough to take anything you throw at them. According to dermatologist, Dr. Snehal Amin, though, they need more care than you think.

“The nail plate is a delicate, superficial layer protecting the living part of the nail bed,” Amin said. “Picking off the gel polish causes damage to the nail plate which may not be visible to the naked eye.”

In other words, you could be causing damage you can’t see. And, if you want your nails to remain strong, peeling or picking off polish will have the opposite effect.

“Improper removal can result in brittle, weak nails,” Amin said. “Most adhesives also are very drying so the nail plate can be damaged even with a well-done manicure.”

Oh, and by the way, this applies to faux nails, as well.

“Pulling the prosthetic nail off of the real nail can stretch apart the thin wispy filaments that hold the nail plate onto your finger,” Amin said. “Tugging on the nail plate can also damage the nail matrix, which is the growth root of the nail.”

Paints a lovely picture, no? Not to mention how painful it sounds. To avoid all of that mess, let’s take a look at the process of properly removing polish.

How to Properly Remove Gel Nail Polish

A hand using a cotton pad with acetone nail polish remover; a hand dripping cuticle oil onto a manicured hand

We all love the long-wear and glossy finish of a gel manicure. Unfortunately, it’s also far more difficult to remove without causing any damage than regular polish. This is especially true if you do your own nails at home rather than heading to the salon.

Dr. Shari Sperling, board-certified dermatologist, and owner of Sperling Dermatology, explained that the very reasons gel manicures are so popular are also what makes them so much tougher to remove.

“Gel manicures have become so popular and give the ability for nail polish to stay on for longer,” Sperling said. “The downside of a gel manicure is how it is removed. It is best to soak nails in acetone to remove.”

Just dipping your nails in a simple acetone product, though, won’t entirely remove a gel manicure. It’s going to take a little more work and a few more steps.

Pronto 100% Pure Acetone

A must for removing a gel manicure without scraping your nails.

To properly remove your polish at home with minimum damage, Amin recommends the following steps:

1. Protect your cuticles. Apply a thin coat of Vaseline or Aquaphor to your cuticles. This will prevent them from being damaged during the removal process.

Vaseline Pure Petroleum Jelly

It's probably already in your medicine cabinet and it can save your cuticles.

Aquaphor Healing Ointment

A small amount applied to your cuticles can protect them during polish removal.

2. File off the top layer of polish. Approach this step gently—you’re not trying to file off the entire manicure. You only need to break through that top layer, so the next products you use can fully penetrate. “Use a salon board to lightly file in a parallel direction to the nail to loosen the gel polish,” Amin recommended.

Makartt Nail File 100/180 Grit

Double-sided to safely file off the first layer of gel polish and shape your natural nails.

3. Remove the rest of the polish with acetone. Soak some cotton balls in the acetone solution, and then use them to soak, and then wipe your nails. “You may need to repeat filing and acetone alternating to completely remove the polish,” Amin said. Once the polish is completely removed, rinse your hands to remove the acetone.

4. Reapply cuticle oil or Aquaphor. Amin recommended Sally Hansen cuticle gel, as well as this nail and cuticle oil from OPI. Regardless of which brand you use, the idea is to get a nourishing and moisturizing product on your nails and cuticles as soon as possible. This will combat any potential damage and/or dryness from both the polish and the products you used to remove it.

Sally Hansen Treatment Cuticle Rehab

Perfect for applying to cuticles after a polish removal.

OPI ProSpa Nail and Cuticle Oil

Replenishes and protects your nails.

How to Repair Damaged Nails

A hand applying cuticle oil to nails; a hand rubbing ointment into the fingers

So, if you’ve already picked off your gel nail polish and/or artificial nail—or even worse, if that’s been your method of removal for years—what then? Unfortunately, some damage has already been done, whether you can see it or not. However, you can minimize any future damage by treating your nails gently for a little while.

“Once there is damage to the nail plate,” Amin said, “hold off on more treatments and just apply Vaseline to the fingertips for a few days or weeks. If there is nail root damage, you should see your dermatologist for help. It can be permanent in some cases.”

For some of us, picking off nail polish could almost be called a hobby! Unfortunately, we’ve all been harming our nail beds. Armed with these tips from the experts, though, you can now enjoy the long-wear benefits of gel nail polish without worrying about damaging your nails.

Amanda Prahl Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl is a freelance contributor to LifeSavvy. She has an MFA in dramatic writing, a BA in literature, and is a former faculty associate focusing on writing craft and history. Her articles have appeared on HowlRound, Slate, Bustle, BroadwayWorld, and ThoughtCo, among others. Read Full Bio »
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