How to get a Professional Gel Manicure for a Fraction of the Cost

I’ve always been a girly-girl and loved painting my nails.  In middle school shop class, we had to make a tool box, and I repurposed mine into a nail polish caddy.  I think we can all agree, though, that the most frustrating part of painting your nails (aside from waiting for them to dry) is having them chip just a few days later.  Three years ago I heard about this miracle product called shellac, or gel polish.  No dry time, much less damage to your nails than acrylics, and NO CHIPPING for two weeks or more?!  I was hooked.  Once you shellac, you never go back.

But, as with all things too good to be true, there was a catch: it was pricey.  At my nail salon (in the Midwest, where things are generally less expensive), I was paying $30 every two weeks for my gel manicure.  Eventually I wised up and started asking for just a polish change, which meant no soaking, no cuticles, and no hand massage.  Still, that was $15.  I started paying close attention to the products my nail tech was using, and her techniques.  Could I do this myself, at home?  It took some practice, but the answer was yes!  The upfront cost for the equipment was about $100, so my at-home manicures paid for themselves within a couple of months.  


If you can paint your nails with regular polish, you can paint your nails with gel.  It just takes a little patience and a few extra steps.  

First, you’ll need some supplies:

gel manicure supplies.jpg
  1. A UV Light

    I prefer this Thermal Spa UV lamp because I can place both hands in it at once, which cuts down on drying time.  This is also the kind that my nail salon uses, so I felt confident in its usage.  I found it for a great price on eBay.
  2. Bond Aid, Base coat, top coat, and polish

    I like to use OPI products, because I’m addicted to their colors!  They totally reel me in with their fun names (Bubble Bath and My Address is Hollywood are two of my faves!)  However, a lot of nail techs swear by Gelish for their gel manicures, because the formula glides on so smoothly, and they also have a wide array of gorgeous shades.  I also buy my gel polish on eBay.  You can get several colors from one supplier, and their prices are less than buying from a beauty supply store.
  3. Nail clippers, cuticle pusher, nail file, cuticle nipper, sanding block, nail brush

    Don’t be scared to nip your cuticles!  While not a necessary step, you want to get your cuticles out of the way.  If you paint on top of the cuticle, it can cause the polish to lift and peel.  So I prefer to just snip off the excess.  Go slowly and don’t overdo it!
  4. Alcohol, paper towels, Acetone and a little paint brush for touchups

  5. Cuticle oil and/or hand lotion

Ok, let’s get started!

Paint thin coats, avoiding the cuticle and skin.

Paint thin coats, avoiding the cuticle and skin.

1.  First, remove any old polish then trim and file your nails to your liking.  

2.  Use an orange stick or cuticle pusher to, well, push your cuticles.  You may want to soak your nails in warm water for 5 minutes to soften your cuticles so they’re easier to push.

3.  Nip cuticles, if desired.

4.  Take your sanding block and lightly rough up the surface of your nail.  You don’t want to get too crazy here, you’re just trying to smooth any ridges and make sure the gel has a good surface to adhere to.  Make sure to use the sanding block along the tip of your nail as well, to get rid of any ragged edges.

5.  Ok, go wash your hands!  Use a nail brush to get rid of excess dust and oils.

6.  Moisten a paper towel with some rubbing alcohol and massage onto each nail to further remove excess oils.

7.  Paint Bond Aid onto each nail.  This helps the base coat adhere.

8.  Paint base coat onto your nails.  You want a thin coat, and make sure to avoid cuticles and skin.  If it does get onto your skin, just dip your paintbrush in acetone and wipe away the excess.

9.  Place hands under your UV light for 2 min.

10.  Paint your polish.  Use thin coats.  Dry for 2 min in between coats.  I usually do two coats of color, but depending on how opaque you want it, you may need to do three.  Again, use your paintbrush plus acetone to clean up around your nails.

Use a small paintbrush dipped in acetone to clean up excess polish around the nail.

Use a small paintbrush dipped in acetone to clean up excess polish around the nail.

11. The top coat is the trickiest part, as it tends to be a thinner formula than the base coat and color, and can run onto your cuticles more easily.  If this happens… you guessed it!   Grab your handy dandy paint brush and wipe away the excess.  After I place the topcoat, I dry for 3 minutes under the UV light.

12.  Rub each nail with an alcohol-soaked paper towel (I know!  It seems scary but it won’t come off, I promise!).  The alcohol reacts with the top coat to seal everything and get rid of any stickiness.  

Tada!  Now you have a beautiful, shiny manicure that will last for at least 2 weeks.  

If the skin around your nails is feeling a bit dry from the alcohol, apply a dab of cuticle oil on each nail and rub in.

When you are ready to remove your gel polish, soak cotton balls in acetone and apply one to each nail.  You can use small squares of tin foil to hold the cotton ball on, or you can buy these handy little clips.  After about 10 minutes of soaking, the gel should flake right off.  You can use your cuticle pusher to help it along.


I’m loving this nail color for fall and winter.  It’s a nice departure from the dark shades I typically wear during the colder months. What are some of your favorite polish colors for this time of year?



OPI Gel in "I Have a Herring Problem" from the Holland Collection

OPI Gel in "I Have a Herring Problem" from the Holland Collection