Proper removal of gel nails will set you apart, build your professional reputation, and make your clients crazy-loyal. Why? Many clients discover that gel nails don’t come off as easily as they go on. This is especially true when clients bargain-shop. Someone in town is offering gels at a discount. But when it’s time for a replacement set, the discount offer is over. So they go to someone else, offering a discount — using different products.  And so on.

This is why some clients get frustrated and try to remove their own gels. We don’t recommend it. DIY disasters include heating acetone on the stove (a definite fire hazard!), or the client simply succumbing to the urge to pick, pick, pick the edges of a lifting gel, which does serious damage to the nail plate.

1. The opportunity: a client comes to you with gel nails that were obviously done someplace else. We don’t recommend “mystery gel” removals (done elsewhere) as a walk-in. This is a technical challenge for you as a professional, because you don’t know what products were used, or if they were used correctly.

This challenge is also a marketing opportunity for you and your business. As you move carefully and skillfully through the gel removal process, explain to the client that there are many competing gel products used by salons. A gel nail looks best, wears longer, and is easier to remove when it is applied and removed using the same product system every time consistently. This means having a relationship with a nail professional.

2. Set the boundaries. As you begin the replacement process, begin talking with the client about her nail likes, dislikes, needs, and how often she wants to get her nails done. What you are doing in this conversation is cementing your future business relationship.

Unless you know exactly how the client’s existing gels were applied, because you yourself did them, think twice when she asks, “How long will it take to get these off?” You need to answer realistically, so that the client is prepared, happy to invest (perhaps) 90 minutes with you for her removal, and so that you can keep your schedule organized.

The manufacturer‘s packaging instructions may promise that the nail will soak off in 12 minutes. Depending upon how the existing gel was applied, this may not be realistic. Discuss her timeframe for her appointment and explain that the nail may need to soak for 30 to 40 minutes to fully release the gel from the nail bed. Scraping the nail to get the gel off faster is never the right option. The damaged nail will soon rebel, and later applications of gel will be unable to bond correctly. This damages your professional excellence, and of course damages the client’s nail for many months.

If the client is impatient, stressed, or in a super-rush, recommend a reschedule allowing more time, so that you can address her nail needs properly and safely.

3. Understand how the existing gels were applied. This is challenging if the nails were obviously not done in your salon. Start by asking the client how long her current gels have been in place. If it’s been 21 days or more, you will need to extend her soaking time. Ask how the gels were removed last time. Wraps, or orange-stick? Did she have her nails done in the same salon for a while, or was she browsing for bargains? Knowing something about her past history will give you clues for the safest removal.

If you don’t know what brand or products were used, err on the side of being cautious and go for a long soak. 

Doug Schoon, president of Schoon Scientific and renowned nail industry chemist, states “If you have to force the product off at all, you are doing something wrong.” The goal is to keep the natural nail plate firmly intact and healthy for its next application.

Remember that anytime you scrape the nail, you are causing harm. Study how the gel reacts as you begin the soak.

4. Educate the client. The acetone soak removes oil but does not damage the nail plate. If your client has been told this in the past, you have an opportunity to educate her. When gel-polish that’s still bonded to the nail is forced or pried off the nail plate, often using a tool (metal tools are the most intrusive), this trauma strips away a layer of keratin. This can cause white spots, cracks, scrapes, divots, and pockets in the natural nail bed — not caused by acetone, but by incorrect, hurried removal.

5. Be patient. Wait! If the client has product on her nails that you’re not familiar with, getting the timing right can be a challenge. It’s a fact that some nail techs go rogue and use various products in ways they were not intended to be used. Why? To make the set last longer. Examples: using a base coat or building gel as a topcoat to make the finish virtually indestructible. This is a great way to ruin a client’s nails, and to undermine your business. Don’t do it!

While she soaks, offer something to make the time pass: heated or chilled neck wrap, herbal foot massage, essential oil scalp massage, eye-covers, recliner seat, personal headset with relaxation vibes.

6. Know your product, especially if you don’t know hers. Follow your product manufacturer’s guidelines. Don’t rush. Allow the UV coating to soften. Don’t reach for your files, though it’s tempting: filing away residue thins the nail plate. If you’re using acetone, keep it warm to avoid evaporation (evaporation slows down the removal process). When using removal wraps, wrap foils in a piping hot wet towel, or place fingers under a warming lamp.

7. The test. Just lightly running an orangewood stick down the nail should be enough to loosen a fully softened gel. We are using this example simply as a test. Your product may not recommend using a tool at all.

Some manufacturers recommend the use of the orangewood stick to “push” (key word: not scrape!) off the gel after the soak. Little to no pressure should be needed to slip off the gel coating that has been fully softened.

Watch closely. Some gel polish removal is done by twisting the soak-off wrap. If you unwrap the fingers and begin to take off the gel-polish, see if the product is “holding” or “snagging.” If so, reapply the wraps and allow the removal solution or acetone to sit on the polish for five to 10 more minutes. Then test again for an easy slip-off.

8. The mantra: gel-polish is a nail enhancement, not a nail replacement. It’s important that your clients understand this, and that you remember it, too. Remember that there is a real, human nail and a real human being across the table — so always handle with care.


The gel nail is not indestructible. Remind your clients to wear protective gloves when doing housekeeping, and to never pick their nails: these activities pull at the nail plate keratin and cause problems, even with the toughest gels.

When it comes to how to build your salon business, your mind may go to fun marketing ideas, like wine-tastings, creating IG galleries, or sending every client a hand-written invitation to a scavenger hunt. All good. But while expert gel removal may not be as sexy, it’s a strong keystone in your rep as a gel go-to.

Victoria Thomas via Beautician List

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