Dreaming of witch nails II: making a gel manicure at home

[Versione Italiana]

Do you remember my article about my nail journey? Back then, I told you about how I quit biting my nails and I showed you my nailcare tips and routine to keep my nails long without using acrylics or gel polish.

However, I also told you that since last year I am struggling with keeping my nails long, because after the PhD I went back to playing the piano regularly. Playing any instrument is typically not compatible with having long nails, unless you are a classic guitarist (then you are allowed to have long nails on the right hand, but not on the left).

I find that the piano allows a certain length, but then it is impossible to keep a nice manicure for even just a few days without it starting to chip immediately.

That’s why I decided to give another chance to the gel nail polish. I had so-and-so experiences in the past with making it at home, I had the impression it did not last long and that my nails were damaged afterwards. But back then, I didn’t know all my hacks on how to take care of long nails that I learned when I had long natural nails. Now I found my way to have a nice manicure for two weeks without chipping and playing the piano every day at the same time. And that’s what I’m going to tell you with this article.

Acrylic and gel nails: what is the difference?

First of all, we have to distinguish between acrylic and gel nails.

In short, gel nails are the ones that last for around two weeks without chipping and that can be removed by soaking the nails in acetone. Acrylic nails are much more resistant and are removed by filing them, there is no other way out. People getting their acrylics done by estheticians typically refresh them once every month.

The type of manicure I am talking about here is the gel, not the acrylics.

Should I better go to an esthetician and get my nails done?

Now, the second question is: is it ok to make gel nails at home or should you better go to an esthetician or nail technician?

It depends. Of course, choosing to get them done by a professional is always a good choice. You can’t make a wrong choice, unless you go to a very bad and non-professional place. I believe that for acrylics, it is even more important that you get the manicure done by a professional, because it is a more complicated technique and there are more risks of damaging the nails if you want to remove the acrylics.

For gel nails, if you are willing to invest some money in good products and if you will first spend some time reading and learning how to not damage your nail and work with good hygiene standards, you can do it at home.

Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages in all cases.

Gel nails by esthetician– Professional work: hygiene standard, s/he should know what s/he’s doing, possibly less risk of damaging the nails
– Typically they use good quality products
– Many are good nail artists, you can get very nice patterns and designs
– They are quicker and they have both hands free: they have experience and they can work on one hand while the other one is curing under the lamp
– It’s more expensive (e.g. in Munich, a set of gel nails may cost up to 50€; it would mean 50€ every two weeks)
– Some nail technicians do things that I would never do to my long nails (e.g. cutting nail cuticles)
– It’s not always quicker overall: you have to consider eventual commuting time
– You can’t do anything else meanwhile
– You have to be lucky and find the right esthetician for you – you might have to look around and try different places before you find the one you like
Gel nails at home– It’s cheaper on the long run
– You can watch a movie meanwhile
– You decide when to do it: you can do it at evenings or on Sundays when the esthetician centers are closed
– One nail chipped? You can fix it anytime, no need to get an appointment
– You are not a professional. You must be careful and learn as much as you can, to avoid risks
– You are slower than an esthetician. A professional may do your nails in 30 minutes, you will need an hour at least
– It requires an investment of around 300€ at the beginning to get the material
– You may be not as good as a professional nail artist in making cool designs

I have chosen to do my gel nails at home for the following reasons:

  • I love to do my nails myself, I find it very relaxing.
  • Finding a good nail artist would take some time and most probably I would not find them right behind the corner; I would have to take into account that I would have to commute and, probably, do it during the lunch break or leave work earlier. If I do them at home, I can just do them in the evening or during the weekend while I watch something on Netflix – that I wouldn’t have the time to do otherwise.
  • I decide what to do with my nails, how to file them, how to treat them, etc. Right now for me it is like with my hair: I don’t like how hairdressers handle my hair, because they always do things that stress them a lot. The same is for most nail technicians I have encountered (they cut cuticles, they file and buff the gel polish down to the nail bed, they file the nails in both directions…)

The initial investment: how much does it cost?

And here is the core question: how much does it actually cost?

First, I have to tell you that if you really want to do it at home, it is fundamental that you get good quality products. Don’t do like me: in the past I tried to do my gel nails at home, but I didn’t want to spend much money – or I didn’t think that those OPI gel polish bottles were worth the 25€ – and I always used relatively cheap products. The result? Manicure that chipped after few days, therefore I had to remove the gel polish very often and do it again, and this lead to damaging my nails.

So, first rule: don’t go for cheap products.

In the next paragraph we will see a bit more in details what do you need, but in summary, here is a list with the prices I paid:

WhatWhere did I find itHow much did I pay for it
UV/LED lampAmazonAround 45€
Cleanser (70% isopropyl alcohol, 1 L)Nailfun shopAround 13€
Remover (100% acetone, 1L)Nailfun shopAround 13€
Clips for remover (+ nail file, cotton pads, and other useful accessories=AmazonAround 8€
Buffer blockNailfun shopLess than 1€
Glass fileGermanikure (back then I bought it on Amazon)Around 15€
Primer + Base + Top + Nail/cuticle oil by Harmony GelishEu NailsAround 70€
4 OPI gel colours: black, black/silver shimmer, nude, and redEu NailsAround 25€ each (but there was a discount when I bought them)
2 IBD Just Gel colours: green and grayEu NailsAround 17€ each

So, you will see that my initial investment was around 300€ in total.

There are some things where you can spend a bit less without necessarily affect the outcome of your manicure, for example:

  • There are cheaper lamps: maybe don’t go for a 10€ one, but I’m sure you can find good UV-LED lamps for less than 45€
  • There are cheaper glass files: I think that the Germanikure glass file is totally worth the 15€, but for some weird reason they are now not available anymore in Europe (or they cost like 50€, don’t ask me why). You can find glass files for much less, they may not be as good as the Germanikure one but still better than a plastic/paper file.
  • You don’t have to buy as many colours as I do. I get easily tired of my manicure, therefore I like to change the colours a bit – especially if I have to keep them for two weeks. But of course, if you like your nails either black or red, nobody obliges you to have 7 colours.
  • You can do a decent manicure also with normal nail polish colours, but with the good primer, base and top coat. If you use normal nail polish as colour layer, the manicure won’t last for two weeks, but I guess it’s ok if for once you really want to change colour but you don’t feel like buying a 25€ bottle of gel.

But: if you really want the manicure to last long, do not go for cheaper primer, base & top coat (and possibly, also colour). They really make a difference.


In this paragraph we will see a bit more in detail what you will need.

Removing the gel & cleaning the nail: acetone, isopropyl alcohol, clippers, cotton pads

To remove the gel polish, a normal nail polish remover will not be sufficient. You will have to use acetone. Is it dangerous? Well, you should not drink it. But you should not drink the acetone-free nail polish remover neither.

The difference with acetone and acetone-free nail polish remover is mainly that pure acetone tends to dry the skin a bit more. But I don’t perceive it as more dangerous than the acetone-free solvents they sell (typically ethyl acetate or the more “ecofriendly” ethyl lactate).

But ok, I did 4 years of PhD surrounded by acetone every day in a lab, and I’m still here, so my opinion may be a bit biased by the fact that I love the smell of acetone. For me, acetone, ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate share the same drawbacks: inflammable, volatile (should not breathe them much), and they tend to dry the skin.

Further, to help removing the gel polish quickly and without making a mess, I suggest you to get a set of those clippers you see above, and the cotton pads. The cotton pads are made of the same type of textile as in the strips that they sell for warm wax. Therefore, if you want to save some money and have cotton pads for the rest of your life, you can just buy a roll of wax strip textile and then cut it.

Finally, before you apply the primer you should clean your nails with a sanitizing solution, like 70% isopropyl alcohol (another thing I love the smell of – sorry, I’m always a chemist after all). You will use it also to “degrease” the nails after you cured the last layer of top coat.

Nail files, cuticle pushers, scrapers…

In the picture above you see my set of nail files/scrapers/cuticle pushers, etc.

From the left to the right:

  • Scraper: I never thought about buying it (I’m a bit hostile towards metal stuff on my nails), but I got one included in the kit with the clippers. Surprisingly, I found it very handy to remove the soaked-off gel polish.
  • 100/180 nail file: was included in the clippers set, it’s a very good file to remove the superficial layer of the gel before soaking in acetone.
  • Buffer block: I don’t like to buff my nail bed, but I do it very lightly just to even out eventual residues of the gel
  • Glass nail file: as discussed above, mine is by Germanikure; I use it to shape and shorten the natural nail
  • Cuticle pusher
  • A brush: can be useful to remove the dust and residues after having shaped the nails

Above you see optional nail art stuff: if you like to decorate your manicure with stickers or little beads, you may need these. The make up sponges on the top left are useful if you want to learn how to make gradients of colours. In that case, you will also need the “latex tape” or, alternatively, any peel-off base coat (they are made of the same thing).

The lamp

And of course, the lamp. There are many types of lamps, most of them with the timer, just pick one (without going for the too-cheap-to-be-real-ones maybe).

Primer, base, top coat, and colours

Finally, the products that you will actually put on your nails:

  • Primer: it helps keeping the gel attached to your nail
  • Base coat (“Foundation” in the picture): first layer of gel
  • Colours (OPI and IBD gel in the picture): second layer, some colours require 2 or 3 layers. OPI are of extremely high quality and long lasting; IBD are a bit meh during the application and may require more layers than you wanted, but they last the usual 10-15 days too.
  • Top coat (“Top it off” in the picture): last transparent layer
  • Nail/cuticle oil: you can either buy it or make it yourself

The steps

1. Remove your old gel manicure

If you already have a gel manicure, you will have to remove it.

0- Prepare Netflix or whatever you use to watch movies and series: you will need it!

1- File the surface layer with the 100/180 file. Do not file down to the nailbed. You just need to take the outermost layer off.

2- Protect your skin with some nail oil

3- Soak a cotton pad with acetone and place it in a nail clipper; then close the nail clipper around your fingertip, obviously with the acetone-soaked cotton pad in contact with your gel nail

4- Wait for around 10 minutes

5- When you remove the clippers, you should see the gel partially peeled off. Sometimes it even gets completely removed. Now, help the removal by scraping gently with the scraper. It should not require you scraping directly the nail and it should come off easily.

2. Prepare the nail

Now, you need to prepare the surface of your nail to the new gel polish, and to give a shape and shorten your nail (if you plan to shorten them).

1- Buff very gently the nail and only if you need to – i.e. if there are some residues of gel that you want to even out a bit.

2- Push back the cuticles. Don’t cut them!

3- Use the glass file to file and shape your nails. Always file in one direction, not back and forth.

4- Spray some 70% isopropyl alcohol on a cotton pad and clean the surface of your nails

5- Apply the primer on each nail.

3. Base – Colour – Top

The steps 1-2 are the ones that actually take most of the time. Now it’s finally time to apply some stuff on your nails and do the real manicure.

1- Apply a thin layer of base coat. Avoid applying on the surrounding skin and remember to cover the tip of the nail in vertical, too (this is easier if your nails are long enough to overcome the fingertip)

2- Cure under the LED lamp for 30 seconds

3- Apply a thin layer of colour. Remember to cover the nail tip, too.

4- Cure under the LED lamp for 30 seconds.

5- If necessary, apply a second layer of colour and cure again.

6- Apply a thin layer of top coat. Cover the nail tip.

7- Cure under the LED lamp for 60 seconds.

4. Finishing touches

After you cured the top coat layer, be careful not to touch anything yet. Some top coats nowadays do not require the “degreasing” step, but I do it anyway: spray a bit of 70% isopropyl alcohol on a cotton pad and clean the surface of your nails to remove eventual stickiness.

Finally, apply some nail/cuticle oil on your cuticles, and you’re good to go!

Please let me know if this (long) article was useful to you and if there are some points that I missed and need to be explained better!


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