DIY Gel Nails at home

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I’m really excited for this blog post today because I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I’ve been playing around with the idea of investing in a gel nail system for myself so that I can do my own gel manicure at home.
So what’s so great about gels? Well, think of it as really long lasting nail polish. It doesn’t chip, doesn’t lose its shine, and stays on for up to 2 weeks! It cures with a UV or LED light and as soon as it’s finished curing under the light the gel is completely dry and hardened. No joke- I went from doing my nails to washing dishes by hand just a few minutes later without messing up my nails at all.
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Here’s one thing you need to know about me: I am a nail technician. I went to beauty school to become a nail tech and then ended up going back again to do hair. However, I didn’t have a ton of knowledge on gel nails until recently because we didn’t cover them very much in beauty school. When I was a student, gel nails weren’t popular. Acrylics were. So that’ mostly what I did in school- full sets of pink and white acrylic nails. I had only worked gel a handful of times in school and never really did them in real life. So while I do have a better understanding of nails in general, I’m still very new myself to the whole gel thing.

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Upon hearing all of my old beauty school friends (who are now successful hairstylists) rave about their Shellac manicures, I decided to do my own research. I wanted to try Shellac, but I wasn’t about to pay to have them done in a salon when I’ve been doing my own acrylics for years. I was able to try out some of my friends’ gel products and hear their personal experiences and testimonials.
Since I’m also a blogger and an avid DIYer myself, I went to the internet and blogs to try to find some good information on doing gels yourself at home. I read tons of tutorials from various blogs and beauty websites. Most of them were OK at best. First of all, they all lacked pictures, and I need pictures! I have to see what you’re talking about. Most of the tutorials just lacked information. Sure, I was able to follow the step by step instructions, but I don’t need as much information as the average person because I have experience. I realized that the average woman attempting gels for the first time was probably left feeling slightly confused by these tutorials.

That’s when I decided to do my own. I feel like with my professional knowledge and a little of my own trial and error, I’ve put together a pretty in-depth tutorial on doing your own gel nails at home. I know the mistakes these other tutorials are making because I see it from two perspectives: 1 as a professional, and 1 as your DIYer/beauty blogger.

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Before you decide to spend the money on a gel system, there are a few things you need to know about gel nails. I don’t want anyone spending a bunch of money on this stuff without knowing the following:

  • A gel system can be expensive when you first start doing them yourself. I spent about $125 on my basic set up.
  • Gel nails can’t be rushed. This is a time consuming system that requires patience. If you can’t set aside an hour to an hour and a half for your first at home application then this is not for you.
  • You can’t skip steps. If you cannot follow the instructions exactly, your nails absolutely will not turn out.
  • Gel nails can’t be interrupted. While you’re doing your nails, you can’t be doing anything else. No eating, no texting or talking on the phone, etc. The nails are not 100% set until the very last step. If anything touches them or contaminates the nail or gel before the last coat is applied, the nails will not turn out correctly.

I decided to get everything I needed for my at home gel manicure from Sally Beauty Supply. The reason I did this was because I wanted to be fair and use the same product that was available to everyone else out there without a cosmetology license

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 {not pictured- nail wipes}
*Can substitute Isopropyl alcohol for Cleanser.
**PH Bond is not a must-have, but it’s nice to have. If you don’t have it you can skip it!

    Here’s what you’ll need to get started:


    This is an amazing deal on a complete starter kit, including the LED lamp that cures in 45 seconds. I highly recommend this set up to get your started. You really cannot beat the price!

    If you already have a lamp (or want to use a different brand) this is a great deal on the Basix Kit!


    UV or LED Lamp . The UV lamp I purchased can be found here on Sally’s website. I’ve also used this lamp from Amazon and it seemed to work just as well. Both are about the same price when it’s all said and done.  As of July 2013, I switched from UV to an LED lamp and I love it, and I highly recommend an LED lamp over UV because the curing time is much shorter. I use the Gelish MINI lamp found here. This lamp cures each coat in only 45 seconds! I’ve also heard a lot of good things about some of the newer store bought kits with LED lamps in them (Like Sally Hansen), though I haven’t used them myself.

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    Gelish Foundation, Gelish colored nail polish, & Gelish Top It Off. These are the 3 essential steps in your gel manicure. You’ll need the Foundation Gel (base coat), the Gelish colored nail polish you want, and then Top It Off to seal your manicure. With your club card, Foundation Gel is $18.95, the colors will run you $12.95 each, and Top It Off is $12.95 as well. That’s about $45 for the Gelish products you’ll need to do your first manicure. Each bottle should get you 15-20 full manicures.

    99% Isopropyl Alcohol or Cleanser. Most instructions will say you need Gelish Cleanser to do your gel manicure. This is not entirely necessary for doing your own nails at home, and you can substitute 99% Isopropyl alcohol instead- either is fine. *Please note* I am aware that in a salon the nail tech does need to use Gelish Cleanser on the client rather than plain alcohol to correctly follow all safety and sanitation procedures. However, chances are if you’re doing your nails at home, you are the only one using the products and this extra step for sanitation isn’t necessary. If that is the case, Isopropyl alcohol is perfectly acceptable to use as a substitution.
    Lint Free nail wipes. These are a must. Regular paper towels or wipes are not recommended.
    Sunscreen. If you’re using a UV lamp. If you’re using LED, you can skip it!
    Basic manicure tools. You’ll need a cuticle pusher, a 180 grit file (also called a zebra file. Ask the sale’s clerk), a nail buffer, an orange wood stick, and cuticle oil.
    Desk lamp or extra light. You need good lighting to apply your gel nails properly. Grab a desk lamp and make sure your hand is directly under the light while you’re applying the product. You should be able to clearly see each nail from every possible angle.
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    • Find a comfortable place with  plenty of room to do your nails. Remember, you’re going to be spending at least an hour on them, so make sure you have plenty of room to stretch your arms and legs and still not knock over or spill any of your product.
    • While doing your nails it is imperative to not touch anything! Dirt and oils are everywhere, and those are the types of things that contaminate the nail during the application. Before you begin, pull your hair back, put on a headband, go to the bathroom, have a snack, grab a drink, gather everything you need, make sure you have no distractions, and put your phone away! You will not be able to use your hands in any way, regardless of how “careful” you think you might be. (you’re not). This also means no touching your face, hair, etc.
    • Read the entire tutorial thoroughly to make sure you understand each step clearly and have everything you need. There are no substitutions for any of the steps involved, so if you skip a step or an item, you will most likely ruin your manicure.
    •  Make sure you have proper lighting and make sure you can see your nails clearly from all angles in the lighting that you have. 
    • Remember, thin, even layers! Applying any of the products too thickly will result in the nails not curing properly.
    • You must cure each individual layer separately!
    • Don’t do all 10 nails at the same time. This almost always leads to accidentally touching the tacky gel nails on something while you switch hands, or a step is forgotten or skipped. I’ll make it easy for you: break it up into 3 sections. The left 4 fingers, the right 4 fingers, and the 2 thumbs. I prep all 10 nails first (see “prep” below). But when it comes time to apply the gel, do it in 3 sections. Do the left 4 fingers first, from start to finish, completing those 4 nails entirely. Then they will be completely cured and can’t be damaged or messed up. Then move along to your right hand and do those 4 fingers from start to finish. Then when they are completely cured and done, do your thumbs last. Trust me when I say this is the easiest way to do your own nails!

     Like this!

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     {click to enlarge}

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      This is one of the most important parts of any artificial nail application. The number 1 reason most artificial nails fail to stay on properly is due to the nail not being prepped correctly. You must prepare the nail carefully and thoroughly! Be meticulous, take your time, and be a perfectionist. Keep in mind that if the natural nail is shiny and/or oily, nothing will stick to it properly. Prep, prep, prep!!!
      Follow these steps:
      • Trim or file nails to desired length and shape with your 180 grit file.
      • Using your cuticle pusher, gently push the cuticles back. You also want to push back any dry or dead skin that may be on the surface of the nail. If there is any skin left on the nail, the gel will not stick
      • Use your buffer to gently take the shine off the nail. You want to pay careful attention around the cuticles and try to get as close to them as possible. Inspect each nail from every angle to make sure you buffed the entire surface. If you see any shiny spots lightly buff them away or the gel will not adhere to the nail.
      • Remove the dust with an alcohol soaked lint free wipe.
      You are now ready to apply the gel product. If you need to take a break for anything, now is the time to do it. Once we start the next step you cannot stop until the very last step is complete. Your nails will be sticky and tacky and every little piece of dust or lint will stick to them, ruining your finished manicure. Have I said that you can not interrupt gels enough yet? Good, let’s get started!
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      Dehydrate the nail. Use an alcohol soaked lint free wipe to thoroughly dehydrate the nail and remove surface oils. I know we just did this step in the prep, but I like to do it twice to ensure every bit of oil is off the nail plate.
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      These nails have no shine to them at all and have been prepared correctly.

      Apply Gelish Foundation. First, wipe the brush off completely to remove any extra product. Then dip the brush back into the bottle and get a small amount of product on the brush. Most instructions will say to apply it to the nail and then seal the free edge. I do it in the opposite order to avoid the product “pooling” at the tips. Instead, use your thumb to pull the skin back slightly on your index finger. Apply a very thin layer of Foundation to the very tip, or free edge.
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       Do this to all 4 fingers.

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      Then apply a very thin layer of Foundation all over the entire nail. You want to get as close to the cuticles as possible without actually touching them. This is where the desk lamp comes in handy, because good lighting is a must. If any Gelish product touches the cuticle your manicure will end up peeling off. Be careful not to get it on the skin. If you do, use your orange wood stick right away to clean any of it up. After the entire nail is covered, wipe off your brush again and go over all 4 nails again to ensure that you have a very thin, even coat.

      Cure. Place the 4 fingers under the lamp and cure for 45 seconds. (Times will vary- check your lamp instructions).
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      After curing, remove your hand from the lamp. The Foundation is cured, but is still tacky.

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      Apply Gelish nail polish. Remember to use your thumb to pull the skin back and seal the free edge first
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      Then apply a very thin layer all over the entire nail, staying close to the cuticle.
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      Cure. Cure the color for 45 seconds. (Curing times will vary- look at your lamp & gel product instructions).
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      When you remove your hand from the lamp, the gel will still be tacky. (don’t touch or let anything touch he tacky gel- you don’t want to get hair/fuzz stuck in it).

      Apply a 2nd coat of Gelish nail polish. Remember to seal the free edge first, then apply a thin layer to entire nail, and cure again.
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      Apply a 3rd coat of Gelish nail polish. Depending on how your color covers, a 3rd coat may be required (and then cure it). If you have sufficient coverage with only 2 coats then go ahead and skip ahead to Top It Off.

      Apply Top It Off. As always, apply to the free edge first.
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      Then apply to entire nail. Be very careful to apply Top It Off over the entire surface. Anything that isn’t covered with this top coat is not protected and will not stick.
       Cure. Cure for 45 seconds.
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      Remove the tacky layer. After the final coat has cured, the nails will still be tacky. Use Gelish Cleanser or an alcohol soaked lint free wipe to remove the tacky layer from the nails.
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      If you’ve applied all of the product correctly, your nails should be finished and glossy looking.
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      Now it’s time to repeat all of these steps to the 4 fingers on your other hand. Go back up to the gray and white header that says “seal, apply, cure” and do all of the steps to these other 4 fingers.
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      Finally, do all of these steps from start to finish on your thumbs. I cure mine together like this:

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      So is it worth the time and the investment?

      Yes! Here’s proof:

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      Go here to see my 2 week update & read more tips on your DIY gel nails!

      If you follow all of these steps correctly and apply the product as directed, you will end up with a salon quality gel manicure at a fraction of the price by doing it at home by yourself. Most gel systems say they will last up to 14 days without chipping. I can confirm that this is in fact true. My nails lasted the full 2 weeks and were still shiny, with only a few very minor dings in the thumb and pointer finger of my dominant hand.

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      The average Shellac manicure costs about $35. I’ve personally seen it as low as $22 and as high as $50 though, so $35 is pretty modest in my opinion. Keep in mind that’s also not including the gas it takes to drive to your appointment, the tip you might have to factor in, or the sales tax you might have to pay. $35 per visit every 2 weeks adds up to $910 for a year of manicures.
      Now here’s a look at the cost breakdown for doing them at home yourself: I spent about $125 for my set up. That should get you anywhere from 15-20 manicures, but let’s say 15 to be nice. So about halfway through the year you’d need to restock your Foundation and Top It Off, restock your colors, and update your color selection. Say you spend another $125 and get another Foundation, another Top It Off, and 7 more colors for your Gelish collection. That’s a pretty well stocked gel system just for personal use. That adds up to $250 for a year of at home manicures. Let’s break that down even further and we see that it’s 9.62 every 2 weeks! 

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      Whether this sounds like a good deal or not is up to you because you also have to factor in the time you spend doing your own nails, as well as the quality of your finished manicure. For me, my manicure looks just as good as one I’d pay for in a salon, so it’s totally worth it to do them myself. I’m pretty convinced that with a little patience, practice, and if you study my method in this tutorial you can get great results with your gel nails too!

      Giveaway Alert!

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      Enter to win the latest collection from Gelish MINI!

      Be sure to check out the rest of my gel nail series:

      A two week update is posted here.
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      How to remove gel nails is posted here.
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      Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with Sally Beauty Supply, Gelish, or any other brand mentioned in this blog post. All products were purchased myself and I received no compensation for this post. As always, all opinions are my own. However, this blog post does contain Amazon affiliate links.

      Linked up here