I Just Got a Virtual Gel Manicure, and It Almost Felt Like Being Back at the Salon

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Gel Manicure At Home
Photo: Maegan Gindi

Getting a regular manicure has been a staple in my beauty routine since high school. Rarely have I gone more than two or three weeks without heading to the salon for some nail shaping and fresh polish.

It was my thing that I always did for myself. Even during the times when I probably could have spent the money on something more essential, I somehow found a way to make it work. With the COVID-19 pandemic still unfolding, this is a habit I've had to let go of in recent weeks.

Obviously, it's not the end of the world. Being unable to get my nails done is a great "problem" to have, all things considered. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss it.

Beyond just enjoying looking at my nails once my manicurist was done working their magic, I missed being able to go into an actual salon, forget about everything else going on in my life and the world for an hour or two, and just sit and kiki with my nail tech — whether I had a previous relationship with them or not. I never realized until the pandemic hit that I probably took this unsung perk for granted, and now I was longing for it. Not to mention on the flip side, salon workers literally cannot do their jobs right now, which means many aren't able to gain any income for the foreseeable future.

All that said, I wanted to think of a creative way to support those in the nail industry, and also still get that just-left-the-salon feeling again. So I figured, why not try a virtual manicure? While nothing compares to physically seeing a professional, this appointment — done over Zoom and FaceTime — was a very close second.

Amy Lin, founder of sundays Studio, a wellness nail care brand with three New York City-based locations, walked me through the full gel removal process. Then Los Angeles-based nail artist Brittney Boyce showed me how to properly apply gel polish. And although it took me a little longer to finish doing it all myself than it would've at the salon, each of our great chats made the time fly by.

I'm sharing the whole process — and their expert tips — below so you can try to DIY it. But if you're longing for your go-to nail tech's special touch and some good conversation, reach out and ask if you can schedule a video call. Then, be sure to pay them, or buy a gift card for their salon to show your support. Trust me, it will lift both of your spirits.

A full step-by-step tutorial on how to do your own gel manicure at home, ahead.

VIDEO: How to Remove Your Gel Manicure Without Going to the Salon

Part One: Removing Gel Polish

Once the official shelter-in-place orders were announced, plenty of us likely thought to ourselves, um, how the hell do I remove my gel polish? The answer is that there are two ways to do this, but one may completely demolish your nails, while the other will leave them in pretty good shape.

While soaking the nails in pure acetone is the go-to solution, not all formulas are built the same.

Before our Zoom appointment, Lin sent me sundays' Non-Toxic Gel Removal Kit, which includes a gentle gel polish remover that still gets the job done — and won't make you pass out if you accidentally take a whiff of it.

You'll also want to grab some aluminum foil cut up into 10 squares, and lay down a few sheets of paper towel on whatever surface you are using to help with cleanup.

It's also important to keep in mind that doing the full removal process on your own can take up to an hour to complete. So make sure to carve out some time, or put on your favorite TV show before you get started.

Step One: Filing Down the Polish

Once we were ready to get started, the nail expert instructed me to take the file from the kit and swipe it across the nail bed where the polish was still present — excluding the grow out areas — making sure to only go in one direction, rather than back and forth. The goal here is only to break down the top layer of polish, without hitting the natural nail.

Step Two: Soaking the Nails in Acetone

Next, Lin told me to break off 10 pieces of cotton (one piece for every nail), and one by one, soak it in the acetone, then wrap tightly with foil to allow my own body heat to speed up the removal process.

Gel Manicure

Step Three: Gently Scraping Off Any Residue

Once 15 minutes had passed, the majority of the polish pretty much came off on its own, but to scrape off any excess, the manicurist gave me an alternative to using a traditional metal cuticle pusher. "A wooden stick [included in the kit] is more gentle than metal," she tells me. "You can use a wooden stick to lightly push the gel off your nails instead of scraping with a mental pusher."

Step Four: Smoothing the Natural Nail Bed

After the first round, there was a still a little polish left over, so we repeated these same steps. But even after, my nail beds still felt a little rough. That's when Lin told me to use a drop of sundays' Hydrating Cuticle Serum on each nail and let it work its magic.

"You may buff your nails while you have cuticle oils on your nails, which creates a thin layer to protect your natural layer during the buff process and it will also gently remove dead skin on the side," she shares. Lin suggests to also make sure you only buff your nails in one direction to avoid any damage.

The result? Beautiful, smooth, healthy nails — immediately after gel removal.

Gel Manicure

Step Five: The Finishing Touches

Just because salons are closed, doesn't mean we can't do a little something special for ourselves at home. Try giving yourself a hand massage, for example.

Start off by placing a few drops of cuticle oil in the palm of your hand, and mixing it with your favorite lotion. Afterwards, "press down on the pressure points of your hand, such as in between the thumb and index finger," Lin suggests. "This can help reduce stress." The salon founder also recommends dipping a towel in warm water, or placing a wet towel in the microwave for 30 seconds and wrapping it around your hands once you're done.

Part Two: Gel Application

With my nails prepped, I was ready to go straight into polish application. But don't get it twisted, working with gel is a lot different than working with traditional lacquer.

First off, you'll need to make sure you have a light nail file or buffer, a nail cleanser, polish remover, or rubbing alcohol, as well as a UV or LED lamp handy in order to cure the polish. I went with Orly's LED Smart Gel Lamp, which is lightweight and portable, but will still get the job done.

You will also need some more paper towels.

Step One: Shaping and Buffing the Nails

Use a nail file or buffer to gently file around the edges of the nail to create your desired shape. You can also grab a regular nail clip to help get you started. This is especially helpful if you want an almond or rounded nail.

Next, you want to gently buff the nail bed. "Just enough so it has a bit of texture," Boyce says. Going too hard can make the nails thin and weak.

Step Two: Cleansing the Nails

Grab a bottle of nail cleanser, nail polish remover, or rubbing alcohol, and dip a small piece of paper towel into the formula. I'm a fan of Orly's GelFX 3-in-1 Cleanser as well as Zoya's Remove Plus Nail Polish Remover. Afterwards, you want to wipe down each nail, making sure to focus on the edges and around the cuticles to remove any excess oils or residue.

Step Three: Base Coat

With gel polish, Boyce suggests doing the full application on one hand at a time to prevent any mishaps, which, sure, may take longer in theory. But honestly, what else are you really doing?

Now that that disclaimer is out of the way, apply a thin layer of gel base coat to your thumb, then cure for 15 seconds. Next, repeat these steps for your index and middle fingers, then your ring and pinky fingers. "By only curing one or two nails at a time, you can make sure they're getting even light distribution," Boyce says.

Step Four: Choose Your Polish

I went with Orly's GelFX Kiss the Bride shade, a soft baby pink. Using the same steps Boyce suggested above, I started off painting one thin layer on my thumb, curing it for 30 seconds this time, then moving onto my other fingers. Once I was finished, I layered on a second coat and repeated these same steps for curing.

Gel Manicure

Step Five: Top Coat

Just like with the other steps, you want to apply a thin layer of top coat to each nail, but the cure time will be a little longer. Start off by curing each individual nail, or pair of nails, for 60 seconds. Then, you'll want to go for 120 seconds to finish off.

If after you've finished curing your nails, you notice that the top layer still feels a bit tacky, don't panic. You'll just need to cleanse the nails, Boyce says. Simply take some rubbing alcohol or traditional nail polish remover, and rub some on top of the nail using a piece of paper towel.

You can also opt for Orly's GelFX No Cleanse Topcoat, which doesn't leave any sticky residue behind.

When you're done, repeat steps two to five for the other hand. Then, voila!

Once I wrapped my virtual appointments, I can't lie, I felt like a brand new woman. Sure, getting a manicure is something small, but just being able to do my nails, and feel as though I was in the salon with a professional definitely boosted my spirits.

So while we all have to make some adjustments for the time being, if getting your nails done is going to make you feel good, definitely invest into doing something for you — and support your favorite nail techs while you're at it.

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