I love getting my nails done. I don’t have a lot of high maintenance habits, but this is one that makes me feel so together and feminine even amongst the boy chaos of my life. But I’m not down to be worried about my nails chipping all the time – they have to be durable as well as pretty. I have an awesome nail lady in town who I went to for a while, and it’s one of my favorite ways to pamper myself, but just couldn’t justify the $35 every 2-3 weeks.
So, I dove into DIY gel nails. At first, it was really confusing to me the right steps. There are lots more qualified people out there who have YouTube and blogs about this – I am not a trained nail technician. But, that may be why this blog needed to be written – to break it down for average people like us who want to save money and still have pretty nails. I have been doing my own gel nails for 7+ years.
DISCLAIMER: There will be an initial investment to do DIY gel nails, as you need to purchase the various polishes, supplies and lamp. But, that cost me about $75, which paid itself off in just 3 nail jobs I didn’t do at the salon (and that doesn’t even include DIY pedicures!). For me, it has been 100x over worth it!
Here are the steps I follow to do my own gel nails that last around 2 weeks without chipping, even when I’m a little tough on my nails.
1. Clip and file your nails into desired shape
There is no right answer to what shape is best. I prefer oval shapes right now, used to get a soft almond shape at the nail salon, but loved square shapes when I was younger. Here is a good guide to what different shapes are out there. Just make sure the edges of your nail, regardless of shape, are smooth. I don’t push back my cuticles and I did acrylic nails for a minute but decided they just weren’t worth the effort for me.
2. Clean your nails with cleansing alcohol
I use this one from Sally’s or this one from Amazon is good as well. This just helps get off the dirt that would prevent a good seal on the nail. You can use just regular old cotton swabs for this and often I do because that is what I have on hand. However, cotton swabs can leave little wispies that can get into your nail color and prevent a smooth finish. The solution for this is to use these lint free wipes. Writing this reminded me to get some more, thank you!
3. Brush the tip of your nails with protein bonder, optional
This is totally optional but I highly recommend. The first year I did gel nails I was able to get beautiful, smooth nails, but the polish would often chip or pop off entirely. It was frustrating and I couldn’t figure out what I did wrong. Then I asked a friend what she did differently and protein bonder was the KEY. I get my protein bonder here on Amazon. It’s a tiny bottle but lasts a long time (like 1+ year for me) as you don’t paint the entire nail. You only paint this onto the top 1/3 of the nail, at the tip. This is to help the nail polish hold on to the nail. It’s worked wonders for me! Don’t put your nails under the UV lamp after this step, go straight to step 4. The protein bonder does not need to be “set.”
4. Paint nail with base coat
Paint the entire nail with a gel polish base coat, directly on top of the protein bonder. There are so many gel polish base and top coat brands out there. I like the Fingerpaints brand from Sallys or lately have been using this Beetles brand from Amazon as it’s super affordable and still works great.
A tip on painting your nails with gel: You need to avoid getting the polish on your cuticle skin, as that will create pockets of air that will prevent a full polish seal and make your polish chip or pop off. Before putting your painted nail in the UV lamp, take a minute and wipe off any polish that got onto your cuticles with your nail or these handy little orange sticks. If you are great at painting nails, this may not happen, but it took me a little practice to get there and this step helped in the meantime.
Once all nails are painted with base coat, set or cure in the UV lamp for 2 minutes (cure time may differ depending on the strength of your lamp. See your lamp directions to figure out what length of time you need).
A word on nail lamps: They don’t sell the nail lamp I use anymore. There are SO many nail lamp options and I am not super versed on all the differences, as I have had the same lamp for 7 years. I will say I love that mine can set both hands at once, I highly recommend that for times sake. Read your reviews to find the one that’s right for you. If I was in the market for one now, I would buy this one.
5. Paint nail with nail polish color and designs of choice, at least 2 coats
This part should feel fairly familiar to you if you’ve painted your nails much before. Remember my tip above to keep the paint off your cuticle skin for better seal. Keep in mind colors will be more vibrant the more coats you use. Be sure to set in the UV lamp after each coat. Also, one more game-changing tip: don’t just paint the top of your nail – run the paintbrush along the TIP edge of your nail too. This will get the paint on the tip and a little underneath the nail as well. My nail salon technician would do this and it’s another little hack that helps prevent chipping.
What brands of gel nail polish? I have used a wide variety, depending what I could find. The two I use the most are the Fingerpaints line from Sally’s and Bettles line from Amazon. I also have used Gelish which is a very popular line and says it has base coat included in it…but I have found this line to be drippy and hard to control. Not my personal favorite and only use if I really love the color.
This is the fun part. I have done all kinds of colors as well as branched into designs. I recommend starting with solid colors to start out with, unless you are particularly good at freehand nail designs. I was an art major turned minor in college who loves to paint, so I definitely enjoy getting creative with my nails. Once you get into it there are all kinds of nail stamps (for intricate designs), stickers, glitters, stones and more. You can see pictured here how I used binder circle stickers to help create a reverse french tip design. I also LOVE making the ring finger an “accent nail” with a different color and design. I’m not a pro at any of these, so I will leave them for you to discover. Pinterest is a great resource for nail design inspiration. I will say a dotting tool like this one can at least help do basic polka dots and flowers and would recommend it.
6. Top with top coat
This is pretty straightforward. There are basic shiny top coats like the one that comes with the Beetles base coat I recommended. Or there are matte finish top coats. Keep in mind the matte coat looks cool but will show more of your mistakes. Set in the lamp for 2 minutes.
7. Wipe with cleanser
Wiping your set nails with the alcohol cleanser again will remove the sticky residue that remains after curing your nails. One quick wipe with a cotton ball or lint free wipe will do the trick!
8. Brush cuticles with cuticle oil, optional
Cuticle oil just helps keep your cuticles moisturized and healthy. It’s an easy step that isn’t mandatory but I do at the end of every manicure. I use either this one from Sally’s or this one from Amazon. Brush it on your cuticle at the base of your nail and then rub in.
Voila! You now have beautiful nails that will not chip or pop off for about two weeks. I do the same process on my toes for a pedicure as well.
9. But how do I get them off?
I struggled with this one for a looong time. I tried soaking them in acetone, peeling them off (terrible for your nails)…there was no good answer. Then I finally bought this nail file drill, the at home version of what my nail tech used at the salon and – WOW! SOO very easy to file off your gel nails without damaging your nail in 10 minutes. Highly recommend!
Enjoy and feel free to ask follow-up questions in the comments!