How to Prep Natural Nails for Gel Polish Application

How to Prep Natural Nails for Gel Polish Application - by

Let’s talk a little about proper preparation of natural nails prior to gel polish application.  I receive a lot of questions and complaints from readers about premature chipping and peeling, and many times this is caused by improper nail prep.  For proper gel polish adhesion it’s important that the nail plate is dehydrated and free of oils, skin and debris.  Below are some tips regarding proper preparation.  (Most of these tips also apply to nail enhancement prep).

Don’t Use Water!

Conduct a dry manicure before applying gel polish… do NOT use water.  Don’t soak the fingertips in water, and don’t use any products that add moisture or oil to the nails.  Your fingers and nails may look dry and unattractive during the prep process, but that’s OK because your polish is going to last longer and you can work on adding moisture back into your hands AFTER your gel polish application is complete.

Also, don’t do your nails right after prolonged exposure to water such as showering or doing dishes!


Cuticle Care

I haven’t talked a lot about cuticle care on my blog because I don’t really have cuticles.  I push mine back ALL the time… it’s almost a nervous habit.  I’ve learned from working on clients that proper cuticle care is a really important step for most people.  The cuticle is the dead skin that attaches to the nail plate at the base of the nail, and it needs to be properly pushed back and removed from the nail so that your gel polish can adhere properly.  If you apply polish over the cuticle you will almost definitely have premature lifting around the edges.

I use CND Cuticle Away to soften the cuticle and a Tweezerman cuticle pusher to push the cuticle off of the nail plate.  When pushing the cuticle you want to use a small circular motion.  It’s also important to use a cuticle softener that doesn’t have oils in it since the objective is to keep the nails free of oil and moisture during prep.

After pushing the cuticle you can nip if there is excess dead skin visible, but this needs to be done very carefully.  You only want to nip the dead skin which appears white in color, and not any live tissue (the eponychium).  I use these comfort grip nippers from Mehaz.  When nipping, be sure not to pull on the skin – squeeze and cut in a clean motion.  Watch this video by NaioUK for a demonstration of the proper nipping technique.


After caring for the cuticles, buff the nail plate with a fine grit buffer like this EzFlow 240/280 buffer.  This will help loosen any remaining dead skin from the nail plate and also remove the shine.  Be sure to buff the entire nail plate from edge to edge!


Cleansing & Priming

After buffing you will need to remove all of the debris from the nails as well as any excess oils using a lint-free wipe and cleanser.  I was previously using alcohol prep pads for this step, but I learned that 70% alcohol isn’t sufficient.  You need to use a 99% isopropyl alcohol-based cleanser to really dehydrate the nail plate and remove the oils for optimal adhesion.  Now I use OPI Expert Touch Nail Wipes or HandsDown Cotton Rounds and a cleanser like CND Scrub Fresh.  We use Scrub Fresh at school, but at home I’ve been using the Pink Gellac cleanser (currently not available in the US).  Most manufacturers sell a cleanser to accompany their polish line.

After cleansing the nail you can also optionally use a prep solution, bonder or primer.  Many prep solutions such as Gelish pH Bond or RCM Prep are alcohol-based and help dehydrate the nail plate further.  Primers like Gelish Pro Bond and Pink Gellac Primer are solutions that help with adhesion and should only be used if you often experience issues with premature lifting or chipping.  I recommend only using primers on the tips or areas where lifting and chipping occur.  If you use a primer on the whole nail, removal could be very difficult.

Allow the cleanser, bonder and/or primer to completely air dry before proceeding with your gel polish application.

Note:  I realize that my personal choice of brands is all over the board.  I tend to mix and match and use whatever works best for me, but it is recommended to stick with products within a brand/line for the best results.  :)

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46 Responses

  1. Karolina says:

    do you wash you hands after cuticle removing process? How do you remove access cuticle remover before buffing? Thanks

  2. Anna says:

    Awesome info! Thanks for sharing factual information!!

  3. Anna says:

    @Karolina- I use a spray bottle with water. Spray each nail with water and wipe with towel.
    Cuticle removers tend to be very alcaline and can irritate the skin when left on for too long.

  4. Teresa Houck says:

    I do everything just as you say to but sometimes I still get what I call “shrinkage” , where the polish pulls away from the edge or back of the nail and sometimes it’s spotty looking? It doesn’t happen every time or with the same polish? I only use Gelish but it happens sparaticly even with the same color on different clients? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated

    • Andrea says:

      That can be caused by excess oils on the nails or it can be that the polish has separated. Make sure the polish is really well shaken before application – get a Robart or similar type of shaker to mix them really well. Flash curing helps with shrinkage, but that’s difficult to do with clients.

    • Sue says:

      Don’t touch the clients nails, it leaves oil

      • Cathy says:

        Have you tried gently shaking the bottle well (3 minutes) ….then letting it settle for a few more minutes before using?

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Great information! A while back I was having a weird problem where my entire nail of gel polish would literally pop off within a few hours of doing my nails. I finally figured out that the buffer I was using was for finishing so instead of slightly roughing up my nails it was making them so smooth the gel polish had nothing to adhere to! Whoops, lol.

  6. NancyG says:

    This may be more appropriate to the DIYer than a professional in a salon. I know that not soaking is important, but I think that it is critical to a lasting gel manicure to make sure all of the cuticle remover (CND Cuticle Away, in my case) is neutralized and removed. I don’t think wipes and even sprays do this adequately and recommend a brief but thorough scrub with soap and water, which also serves to clean the nails. It doesn’t require a long soak, just a 20-30 second scrub with soap, water and a nail brush.

    • Andrea says:

      At school we do a completely dry manicure without even cuticle softener. They are sticklers about not using any water. I don’t think that briefly washing the nails is problematic – just soaking.

  7. Amber says:

    I started pushing my cuticles back several times a day on a daily basis and did a dry manicure yesterday. My French never looked so good! Used Gelish products and a brush to refine smile lines. Turned out GREAT :) I likely won’t ever soak my fingers again before painting.

  8. Erika says:

    Thanks for the tips! I had no idea a primer could make removal more difficult.

  9. Deb says:

    Do you use the “cnd cuticle away” right before you apply the gel? I’m curious if the product has oils in it. People who have difficult cuticles are very hard to prep dry. I always worry that ill injure there finger nail with excessive pushing.

    • Andrea says:

      I apply it at the beginning and wash it off before applying polish. I don’t believe this product has oils in it. I’ve used others that do have oils and there’s a significant difference. I can get the nails very well dehydrated after using this product.

      • Natalie says:

        I see you are a professional. I have a slightly off topic question. I went to a professional (came highly recommended) to have gel nails put on. She told me I had the type of nails that flare out to an extent. When the gal filed my nails, she “indented” the nail, if you will, at that spot where the nail bed ends on each side. It was literally a sharp corner in to the nail and then the nail went straight down. I hated it. It not only looked silly, but of course everything caught on the edge. I did not understand her reasoning for doing it. I have Googled this trying to see if I can learn any information on my own of why someone would file my nails that way. Hers were not filed that way, and neither were my friend’s who recommended this gal…the manicurist insisted it was needed for my type of nail bed/flared nails. I now had to cut them all down and re-grow the edges of the nails out. It is very unsettling. Any input you have would be appreciated.

        • Andrea says:

          I often file the sides of my clients’ nails to give them a more narrow, streamlined look. It’s a personal preference really – she didn’t HAVE to do it. The corners should be buffed or tapered just a bit to remove any sharp edges.

  10. Cathy says:

    I’ve been doing at home SOG manicures for two years and I just took your advice about avoiding water. Before I was running my hands under hot water to push back the cuticles…letting them dry…using alcohol to wipe and prep but they kept chipping and lifting. I was constantly touching up and gluing back down. Now….for the first time…avoided water….really waited until dry after washing…this manicure is finally lasting. I might avoid water even further on my next manicure. THANK YOU!!

  11. Great post Andrea

    Washing up, taking a bath or long shower after doing a gel mani can also be a culprit for lifting.  I always wait at least 2hrs before taking a shower and I’d steer clear of having a long soak in the tub until the following day.

  12. Julie says:

    my friends like a ‘wet’ manicure before I apply their gel polish as they feel pampered – I thought the cuticles push down easily, I file each nail, buff each nail and then wipe with a cleanser (prep + wipe) – nails seem clean – I feel muddled, Are you saying no cuticle cream or soaking? Some fingers need this care for a good finish – advice please.

    • Andrea says:

      Yes, a wet manicure can prevent the polish from lasting and cause premature chipping or peeling. You want the nails to be as dry as possible for optimal adhesion.

  13. Julie says:

    Thanks, I had a problem, I prep nails, base +3 coats of navy blue (I had successfully used this before) when I take off the colour it comes off and looks dreadful, blotchy. I noticed as I put top coat on the colour came off on brush. Any suggestions what caused this. Thanks

  14. Leslie Ann says:

    Newbie questions :) It seems I can mix and match products as long as they are all UV or UV/LED compatible, is that correct?
    dry manicure
    primer on tips -clean (with alcohol?)
    base coat (cure?)
    coats of color (cure between each coat?)
    clean with alcohol
    Top coat (cure)
    Clean with alcohol
    Is that about right?

    • Andrea says:

      Close… here are the steps:

      dry manicure
      clean with alcohol – 91% or higher
      primer on tips
      base coat (cure)
      coats of color (cure between each coat)
      top coat (cure)
      clean with alcohol

      • Leslie Ann says:

        Yay, got my lamp and my Gellac colors. Is the base coat supposed to stay a bit tacky? I’m using the new OPI lamp you reviewed. I did my pinky to practice on and the first base coat didn’t seem to cure. I did it again after removing it (it was great with the primer on the tip) and it seemed to be a bit LESS tacky. But still not hard. Can’t wait to get more colors from you.

        • Andrea says:

          All layers will be tacky.

          • Leslie Ann says:

            Phew, so I don’t need to worry. And the only layer to clean off is the top coat with 91% alcohol, right? My first set looks pretty good. I think I’m putting on too thick a layer, but I’m happy. Practice will help.

          • Andrea says:

            You can cleanse the tacky layer with 70% or higher. 91% or higher is recommending for cleansing the nail plate before application. :) Practice makes perfect. Good luck!

  15. Inez says:

    If your using a primer is it only applied under the gel polish base, or can it be applied in between Gel Polish coats also?

  16. Meg says:

    Can you use a different brand base and top coat than the color you are applying? For instance, can I use Gelish base and top coat with a Pink Gellac color?

  17. Angela says:

    Is there anyway to thin out the base coat in the bottle? Mine is way too thick and gets stringy or bubbles.
    My new Gelaze says it needs no basecoat?

  18. Lotte says:

    Just wondering, isn’t scrub fresh supposed to be used without buffing the nail? I thought that was the big advantage of using scrub fresh?

    • Andrea says:

      I know that if you use the whole CND Shellac system you shouldn’t have to buff, but I personally still buff if I use Scrub Fresh independently from the system.

  19. Carmen Gonzalez says:

    What do you use when a semi-permanent gel is thick and is hard to place it on nails? I know we use thinner for Opi acrylic nail polish but on semi-permanent gels don’t know; whould you please give an advice? I’ll appreciate

    • Andrea says:

      What is a semi-permanent gel? Do you mean an extended-wear lacquer? I would use a nail polish thinner on any lacquer product and gel polish thinner on gel polish (polish that cures in UV/LED).

  20. Clara Knott says:

    Excellent. I learned a lot. I would like to read it again but the font is too faint for me and my eyes can not cope With this as I need my eyes for my manicures

  21. Sonia says:

    Can anyone tell me how you remove the primer from the tips? Do you still soak off?

  22. Vicki Wright says:

    Can you use an orly bonder before using gel polishes or does it have to be a dehydrator?

  23. Carol says:

    How long should the polish stay on? How to take off?Carol

  24. Rachel says:

    Finally! Someone is confirming that adding bonder over an entire nail (especially for those who don’t have a lot of lifting) will make it almost impossible to remove the gel polish! I was going crazy watching you tube video after you tube video which made it look so easy to soak off. I’m so relieved.