It’s a universally accepted truth that an at-home manicure will never last as long as one done in the salon, even if you follow the exact same steps and use the same exact products. The promise of an at-home gel manicure doesn’t just solve that, it also makes it even easier to get long-lasting results from the comfort of your own couch. We talked to the experts to find the best at-home gel nail kits for everyone from beginners to pros and even nail art aficionados.
Ahead, how to find the best one for you.
How to use a gel nail kit
While you might want to jump right into it when the mood strikes, most experts agree that the best way to get a great at-home gel manicure is to prep. “It’s important to clean up your cuticles as best and as gently as you can,” says NYC-based nail artist Anna Popov, who has her own studio in Staten Island. “It gives better adhesion for the gel, therefore it’ll last longer. Use a good quality cuticle remover (my favorite is Deborah Lippman), a cuticle pusher (my favorite is the Tweezerman pusher), lightly buff the excess dead skin and finish off with a clean cuticle nipper to gently nip off any remaining hangnails. It’s also important not to over-cure your base coat. Refer to the correct curing time on the back of the bottle so you don’t struggle to remove it later.”
Manicurist and Sally Hansen partner Hannah Lee says that in addition to proper prep, it’s important to — and she cannot stress this enough — follow the directions. Every at-home kit should come with step-by-step instructions, she says. “First, you’ll cleanse the nail to remove any oil and debris. Then apply a base coat if one is needed. Then cure. Apply a layer of your choice of color and cure again. Repeat with another layer, cure. And finally apply a top coat and cure one last time.”
One other thing to note? According to Christina Kao, the founder of DIY gel manicure brand Le Mini Macaron, it’s important to paint thin layers, as well as properly cure each coat between layers. “Gel has a thicker consistency than regular nail polish, and many beginner users make the mistake of painting layers that are too thick, which will result in quick chipping,” says Kao. “If you get any gel on the skin around your nail while painting, make sure you clean it up before curing. You can do that either with a round brush dipped in acetone or with a cuticle stick. Cleaning up before curing will make sure your gel lasts longer and will help you achieve a flawless finish.”
Easy enough, right? She recommends you finish off with some cuticle oil “to keep things moisturized.”
Are gel nails safe?
Whether you’re in the salon or at home, you’ll need a nail lamp that emits UV radiation to cure any gel nails. And while exposure to such radiation can cause premature aging and sun spots, and put you at risk for skin cancer, the FDA “views nail curing lamps as low risk when used as directed by the label.” In fact, according to a 2013 study that was published in the journal of Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, 30 minutes of daily exposure to this kind of a lamp was below the occupational exposure limits for UV radiation, making them safe when used as directed. (Anyone who’s ever had an in-salon gel manicure knows that each hand is usually under the lamp for a total of about 8-10 minutes, even with the most detailed nail art.)
Still, dermatologists advise to be sure all tools are sterilized, and if your nails become brittle, peel or start to crack after gel polish, give your nails a break from polish to allow them to rebuild.
Best at-home gel kits for beginners
The best gel kits for beginners can deliver similar results as an in-salon manicure — but only if you follow directions, says NYC-based manicurist Kesang Gurung, who loves the CND at-home gel system. It might take a bit of practice — keeping your hands steady, applying with your non-dominant hand — but most gel kits are made with simplicity in mind. And Popov agrees, “For non-professionals, I like to recommend the CND Shellac system,” she says. “The brushes make it easy to apply on yourself, the removal is seamless and less chance to inflict nail damage on yourself. They have a great collection of colors as well so you have plenty of options.”
While Kao recommends this one from her own brand, Lee also says this is a favorite of hers, mentioning it’s “great for someone wanting to try out gel manicures at home." Kao says the kit includes four exclusive mini gels, a nail file, a cuticle pusher and 20 remover wraps. "The bottom of the LED lamp is removable, so you’re able to do pedicures as well,” she says.
Lee says this one from Kiara Sky is a “great beginner set that provides everything you need.” You can build your own custom set and choose two gel polishes, your preferred top coat and even the color of the LED lamp. It also includes nail files and a base coat for the full system.
This is another beginner-friendly set recommended by Lee. It includes an LED lamp, gel base coat, one gel nail color, gel top coat, 10 nail cleanser pads, acetone remover, a cuticle stick and a nail file and buffer.
Best gel kits for professionals
“My favorite professional gel kit is from Gelish,” says Popov. “I find their products to look sleek and match with my studio aesthetic, as well as be really reliable in terms of how long my products last me, and how long my clients' retention is.”
This kit from Apres, the maker of Gel-X (or gel extensions), is a favorite of Gurung’s. It comes with a convenient case, plus Aprés Non-Acidic Gel Primer, Aprés Extend Gel Gold Bottle Edition, Aprés Top Gel Coat, a nail file and sleek LED light.
Best gel kits for nail art
Gurung says this kit, which includes a USB flash lamp, nail file and buffer, gel base and top coat and your choice of a dozen types of tips, is great for those that like nail art.
A favorite among editors who love nail art, this budget-friendly kit is also a top-rated product on Amazon, with more than 7,000 5-star reviews.
Portable nail gel kits
Le Mini Macaron's One-Step Gel Kit is a mini version of its full-size system that makes it easy to do your nails on the go. Whether you want to bring your nail kit on vacation or need a last-minute manicure in the car, the USB-powered LED light makes it easy to do a gel mani anywhere.
Best gel nail polish
While Gurung says CND isn’t known for longevity, the brand is known for great quality, coverage and keeping the health of the nail in tact. “Plus, removal is the easiest,” she says.
“Bioseaweed’s formula is my favorite,” says Lee. “It’s not runny, opaque and always cures properly (sometimes with thicker, opaque gels they can wrinkle, meaning the outside layer cures but underneath that the gel is still wet).”
“Lisa Kon has a really great selection of neutrals which my clients use often,” says Lee. “I also love their cat-eye gel options.”
For an even application and easy removal, OPI’s gel polishes are many manicurists’ mainstay.
“The Gel Bottle has a really great color selection,” says Lee. “They have hundreds of options to choose from and they run great sales pretty often.”
How to remove nail gels at home
Experts agree: The best way to remove gel polish at home is gently — and with tons of patience.
“To remove gel polish, file off the top layer until all the shiny spots are gone but be careful not to hit your natural nail,” says Popov, who adds that you want to be extra careful at this stage to not cause any damage. “Soak a piece of cotton in acetone and wrap it on your fingernail with a piece of foil. It’s easier to work on one hand at a time. If it’s Shellac, soak for five minutes. Any other brand, soak for about eight minutes. Working on one finger at a time, remove the foil, gently swipe off the gel with an orange wood stick and lightly buff off the excess with a 180 grit buffer. After that, you’re ready for your next mani!”