Gel Polish Won’t Come Off? Here Are What To Do?

The thing you love most about gel polish can eventually drive you crazy. You adore how your gel mani stays stuck so you can rock polished nails for weeks without smudges, scratches, or chips.

But a fully dried set of gel polish sticks very strongly, which can become a problem when you want to remove it. What can you do if your gel polish won’t come off?

Your instinct might be to wildly pick at gel polish that won’t come off, but that’s the worst way to remove it. Trying to yank off your gel mani will damage your nails.

There’s a gentler way to get your nails polish-free. I’ll share the steps to safely removing even gel polish that’s clinging to your nails for dear life.

How To Remove Gel Polish That Won’t Come Off?

You can remove gel nail polish in 3 steps: 1) file away the polish’s top layer to break its seal, 2) soak the polish in pure acetone polish remover, and 3) slough off the loosened nail polish layers. Hard-to-remove gel polish formulations might need repeated soaking in acetone and gentle filing.

a set of gel polish that won't come off easily

Gel polish that won’t budge can trigger a panic attack. But breathe; we’re going to get your polish off.

The first thing to do is clear some time in your schedule. Set aside at least half an hour.

I know you’ve got stuff to do, people to see, and places to go, but you need to press pause to let yourself properly remove your polish. Knowing you’ve got time will stop you from rushing (and wrecking your nails!). Why not catch up on all the must-hear playlists you never get a chance to listen to while removing your polish?

What’s next? Put together a gel-polish-removing kit.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • An old towel
  • A new course nail file
  • Vaseline
  • Pure acetone nail polish remover (make sure it’s 100% acetone)
  • A small bowl you’re happy to pour acetone into (so, not your breakfast bowl!)
  • Cotton balls or pads
  • Tinfoil or plastic food wrap
  • Scissors
  • A warmed old towel
  • A timer
  • A rough-textured cloth
  • Hot water
  • A wood manicure stick
  • A nail buffer
  • Mild soap
  • Cuticle oil
  • Rich hand cream

Done! What now? Prep.

Set up your polish-removing workstation like this:

  • Find an uncluttered table or counter and cover it with an old towel to protect it from acetone spills.
  • Tear or cut your cotton into 10 pieces, just big enough to cover each of your nails.
  • Make 10 tinfoil or plastic food wrap squares to wrap snuggly around each of your fingertips.

Now you’re ready to remove the old polish to make space for the new!

Here’s a step-by-step guide to removing your gel polish:

pouring acetone for nail polish removal

3 Steps To Removing Gel Polish That Won’t Come Off

Try these steps to get rid of gel polish that seems like it’ll never come off:

1. Break The Polish’s Outer Layer

Grab your nail file and work it against the top layer of your manicure. Easy does it! You want to remove just the upper layer of polish, so stop once the color has dulled.

Gently file the tip of your nails, too, to help loosen the edge of the polish.

2. Soak Your Nails In Acetone

You have two options for this step: a trickier yet gentler method and a method that’s easier but more damaging to your nails and skin.

I’m all for healthy, happy nails and skin, so let’s start with the gentler method:

  • Soak the 10 bits of cotton in acetone.
  • Taking one acetone-soaked bit at a time (and focusing on nail by nail), press the cotton against your nails, covering the whole nail plate.
  • Wrap the tinfoil or plastic squares around your fingertips to keep the cotton pressed against your nails. This is the tricky part!
  • You can now wrap your hands in a warm towel to make the acetone work more quickly.
  • Set your timer for 10 to 15 minutes, turn up the music, kick back and relax.
  • When your timer goes off, check a nail. The polish should have started peeling off. If it hasn’t, add more acetone to the cotton (or use a fresh bit), return it to your nails, and give it another 5 minutes.
  • When the time’s up, remove all the tinfoil (or plastic wrap) and cotton.
a woman with her gel nails wrapped with tinfoil

Good to know: You can buy reusable gel polish remover caps or clips for an earth-kind alternative to tinfoil or plastic food wrap.

If this method sounds too clumsy, you can try the simpler way. Just remember that the ease comes with extra damage risk to your skin and nails from the drying acetone.

A fair trade-off, you think? Okay, here’s what you do:

  • Pour enough acetone into your small bowl to cover your nails from tip to cuticle.
  • Put your fingertips into the acetone and let them soak for 10 to 15 minutes or until the polish starts peeling.

Tip: Smear Vaseline onto your cuticles and fingertip skin before you dip your fingers into the acetone to drop your chance of flaky skin.

3. Slough Off The Polish

removing gel polish with a cuticle pusher

Your gel polish should be peeling off your nails by this stage. All you need to do is gently help the process along. You may use a cuticle pusher, which I recommend the most. But if you don’t have one, it’s ok, keep reading!

You can wipe your nails with a rough-textured cloth moistened with warm water.

If this doesn’t work, lightly scrape away the polish using a wood manicure stick. But be warned that using this tool can hurt your nails and give them white spots if you are not a professional.

Suppose you’re dealing with super-stubborn nail polish (glitter formulations are among the most clingy). In this case, you might need to gently file the polish to remove a few more layers. But be extremely careful not to file your actual nail by mistake.

Never forcefully scrape or file your nails. Rather give them another acetone soak to loosen the polish enough that you can softly slough it off.

After clearing all the polish, lightly buff your nails to smooth their surface.

nail technician removing gel nail polish

If you try these 3 steps and your polish stays stuck, you’ll need your nail tech’s help getting it off. Plus, ask a nail pro to remove gel polish from acrylic nails, as you could lose your polish and nails if you go near acrylics with acetone and a nail file. You can also consider removing the gel polish with sugar, although this only works with some gel polishes.

Or you could always grow out your nails. Though fingernails take up to 6 months to grow out, so I doubt many will go for this option!

How To Care For Nails After Removing Gel Polish

Your nails might be polish-free, but you’re not finished until you’ve ticked all aftercare essentials off your list.

Here’s how to give your hands TLC after you’ve removed your gel polish: wash the acetone off using a mild soap, dry your hands, massage your fave cuticle oil into your nails, and slather on hand cream (bring out the most luxurious one in your stash!).

Gel Polish Won’t Come Off: The Bottom Line

You can say bye-bye to gel polish sticking to your nails as if it will never leave by filing off the top layer, soaking it in 100% acetone until it starts to peel, and gently scraping it off.

After you’ve removed the polish, show your skin and nails some love by washing off the acetone and generously applying cuticle oil and hand cream.