We’ve all been there: You spend ages working out exactly which gel nail polish color will go with your wardrobe but then just a few days later, you take a look down at your keyboard ready to marvel at your fine fingertips, and notice that something isn’t right. Right there, at the tip of your forefinger, your gel has started to peel. Nightmare.
First, you’ll go through a phase of denial, pretending that everything is fine, but then a huge wave of utter disappointment comes crashing over you when you realize it won’t be long before the rest of your nails follow suit and start flaking. And if you’re anything like us, stage three is full of temptation to pick, peel, and bite the polish back down to the bare nail. And if you didn’t know already, that isn’t a great idea. We spoke to nail experts about how to stop gel nails from peeling in the first place.
MEET THE EXPERT
- Natalia Mercedes is a nail tech at Art Nail NYC.
- Cherrie Snow is a nail expert and fashion manicurist.
Keep scrolling to find out how to protect your manicure and prevent polish from peeling.
What Is Gel Nail Polish?
Regular nail polish and gel nail polish have different chemical compositions. While regular nail polish can just be painted on, gel requires a little more care before application. “Most of the steps are similar to a regular manicure. However, removing natural oils and dehydrating the nail plate is required for a long-lasting gel manicure,” says Mercedes. After each coat of polish, the gel is cured with an LED/UV light instead of just air-drying, making the manicure extra strong and sure to last at least two weeks.1
Why Your Gel Polish Might Be Lifting
- Cuticles were not prepped
- Nails were not filed before the application
- Too much moisture and oil on the nail plate
- Insufficiently cure gel polish
- Thick coats of gel polish were used
- A base coat or top coat wasn’t used
- The free edges weren’t capped
- The nails are being exposed to harsh conditions
Treatments and Preventative Measures
Whatever You Do, Don’t Pick
If you like nothing more than picking at a two-week-old manicure, let this be a warning to you. “Our nails are made up of about 25 layers of keratinized skin cells, and peeling off gels will take off those top protective layers, causing the nail to become thinner, weaker, and uneven,” says Snow.
Mercedes reiterates how bad picking is for your nails. “When you peel off any nail enhancement, you rip off layers of your nail plate and make your nail weaker and cause your nails to chip more. It’s a vicious cycle,” she says. Jeopardizing the strength of your nails by peeling gel polish can lead to white spots and stress breaks.2
Put a Layer of Top Coat on Chipped Nails
So in short, if you do notice your manicure has started to peel, do not start picking. Mercedes’ three-step method? “File the nail where the chip happened, don’t pick nails, and seal it with a top coat.” It’s as easy as that. For those who have busy hands and can’t stay still, Mercedes recommends a fast-drying top coat, like Sally Hansen’s Insta-Dri Anti-Chip Top Coat.
Cap the Free Edge
After filing near the chip, apply a thin layer over the top of the polish, and seal the edge by painting over the tip of the nail. This will help your manicure hold out until you can get to the salon to have the gels removed.
Prevent Chipping When You Can
As with many things, prevention is far better than attempting a cure. Snow recommends wearing gloves when washing up and cleaning, as well as avoiding opening boxes or cans to increase the longevity of your gel manicure. For those nail-biters out there—keep your hands away from your mouth. It can be tempting, we know, but for the safety of your manicure (and your health), nix the finger-chomping. “Don’t use your nails as tools!” Mercedes says. She also notes to avoid super hot water when washing hands and showering.
Keep Hands Moisturized
If you do end up picking at your nails, make sure you still keep your hands and nails moisturized. “Apply hand cream after every hand wash, and regularly massage cuticle oil over the gelled nail to encourage flexibility and prevent chipping,” Snow adds. Glossier’s palm-sized pod of hand cream combines ingredients such as meadowfoam seed oil and coconut fruit extract to give you moisturized hands without feeling greasy.
Meadowfoam (a.k.a. Limnanthes alba) seed oil is derived from meadowfoam seeds and is composed of mostly fatty acids and antioxidants. The emollient helps lock in moisture and soften skin.
To avoid dry, cracked hands, it’s also worth considering the brand of gel used. Snow uses Bio Sculpture Gel, which doesn’t require the use of primers, bonders, or harsh buffing to be removed.
Invest in Cuticle Oil
Investing in cuticle oil can keep both your nails and skin healthy. The nutrient-rich oils can boost circulation around the nail, helping them grow. Plus, it can also protect your polish. Mercedes’ favorite cuticle oil—which she recommends using twice a day—is the Famous Names Dadi Oil, which is full of nourishing ingredients like jojoba oil and vitamin E.
Use Thin Coats of Polish
Whether it’s an at-home mani or done by a professional, the key to a long-lasting, non-peeling gel manicure is thin, smooth layers. It can be easier to do a thick, single layer to save time, but it won’t help you in the long run: Thick layers will peel easier, or even worse, they can be prime for the picking. (Meaning the moment you feel a tiny lift, you’ll be digging at your nails). To avoid any of this, start thin and build your color.
Keep Your Hands Dry For Your Mani
It may sound redundant, but try to keep your hands as dry as possible on the day of your manicure. The less malleable and flexible your nails are, the more likely they are to break or get caught on something, and keeping hands dry is a great way to avoid this. Moisture and nail polish are true enemies for life, and you want to keep them far, far away from each other.
Keep Your Hands Away From The Clippers
We know, we know—it can be deeply tempting to make sure your nails aren’t growing too long, or you have a jagged edge—plenty of reasons to pull out your clipper and nail file and go to town. Using clippers and files will break down the seal, which will cause lifting and peeling, so just let your nails be.
Take Downtime Between Manicures
Ever heard of “nail dehydration?” Your nails need access to water and air as much as the rest of your body, and going back-to-back with gel manicures is like suffocating your nailbeds, which can lead to damage and breakage. Both wearing gel manicures, as well as the removal process, can be a lot for your fingers to handle, so take time between gel applications. Your fingers will thank you.
Make Sure You’re Not Waiting Too Long
It can be massively tempting to want to see how long your gel manicure can last without chipping, but try to avoid doing anything of the sort. A gel mani should last you two to three weeks maximum before running the risk of potential damage to your nail beds. Going too long with gel on your nail runs the risk of weakened nails and the potential for moisture to cause some issues—once the gel starts to lift, it can lead to moisture gathering under the gel, which can be difficult to clean and can lead to bacterial growth.3
Have Professionals Remove Your Gel
It’s best to leave gel removal to the pros. “The removal at a salon will probably go quicker and presumably more safely. Tools and techniques that quality nail technicians use will remove the top coat more thoroughly, allowing acetone to soak color gel quicker,” Mercedes says.