How to Apply Gel Polish Perfectly: A Step-by-Step Guide

Whether you're new to nail polish and want to explore the options, or you want to find a longer-lasting polish formula, a gel manicure might be what you're looking for.

Compared to regular nail polish, gel is known to be incredibly long-lasting and yet, unlike acrylics (or fake nails), it is still a liquid formula that is applied directly to your natural nail.

If you want to try gel nails but don't know where to start, this guide will give you a step-by-step tutorial on how to apply gel polish.

We've collected all the supplies you need to stock up on, the manicurist-recommended steps for the best application, and some unique ways to customize your gel nails. Here’s what you’ll learn:

    What you need to apply gel nail polish at home

    gel nails

    First, the supplies. Gel nail polish application requires many tools you probably already have in your at-home nail polish kit, but with a couple of important additions. 

    UV/LED lamp

    S&L UV lamp (S&L gel nail starter kit UV lamp)

    A UV/LED curing lamp is critical for gel nails because it hardens the polish, making it more durable and chip-resistant.

    “Curing” is a term that refers to the process of drying gel nails. The chemical reaction activated by the light source quickly dries your nails so they don’t chip or smudge immediately after application. This quick-drying feature is one of the big benefits of a gel manicure or pedicure.

    Cuticle oil

    Gel curing – and especially gel polish removal – can be drying for your nails and cuticles, so investing in cuticle oil helps to keep moisture in the skin or nail plate. 

    Cuticle pusher

    Cuticle pusher from S&L

    A cuticle pusher is used to expose as much of your nail bed as possible, so that it takes longer for your nails to visibly grow out under your polish.

    Nail buff

    S&L nail buffer

    A nail buffer is another nail-kit staple. It serves the purpose of a nail buffer to lightly prep the surface of the nail to ensure the surface of your nail is as even as possible for smooth application.

    Nail file

    Nail filer by S&L

    When removing gel nails, you want to avoid damaging the natural nail underneath by using too coarse a nail file.

    For removing gel nails, you can use a medium grit file. If you are applying soak off gel polish, use a 180 grit nail file to remove a hardened top coat before removing the soak off gel polish

    Nail clippers

    nail clippers and accessories

    Source: Pexels

    Nail clippers are used before a gel manicure to shape the nail. After gel polish is applied, don’t clip your nails. Cutting your nails after a gel manicure can very likely ruin them as it will break the seal at the tip, causing the gel polish to peel off.

    Rubbing alcohol

    Rubbing alcohol applied cotton pads

    Rubbing alcohol is used to thoroughly clean your nails before you apply gel polish because it removes anything that could get in the way of the polish binding to your natural nail. To apply it, you’ll also need cotton balls or lint-free nail wipes that won’t leave any fuzz on your nails.


    manicurist applying top coat

    Source: Pixabay

    A top coat is what seals your gel polish and gives it that beautiful shine. If you don’t have a gel top coat, S&L Beauty also has a starter kit that includes all of the polishes you need to love your gel nails. 

    Base coat

    s&l base coat

    Using a good base coat is more important with gel polish than with a regular nail polish. The base coat is what helps the gel bind with your natural nail, and this will ensure that your gel nails last as long as possible.

    Gel polish

    Fairy Tale Nail Polish Set - S&L Beauty Company

    Finally, the fun part. Pick your favorite gel colors or experiment with something new!

    How to apply gel nail polish: Step by step

    Pink gel manicure by S&L

    Applying gel nail polish is as much of a ritual as it is an art. We’ll take you through how to apply gel nail polish step-by-step to ensure that your at-home manicure or pedicure is absolutely foolproof. Here’s a complete, step-by-step guide on how to apply gel polish:

    1) Cut and file nails

    gel manicure by nail tech

    Source: Pexels

    The first step to a beautiful gel mani is shaping your nails. Use a nail clipper to trim them to the size and shape you want, then use a nail file to round out the edges for smooth application.

    2) Push cuticles down and apply cuticle oil

    nail tech applying cuticle oil

    Source: Pexels

    Hydration is key for nail health. You should be using cuticle oil daily, but particularly in combination with gel polish.

    Use a cuticle pusher to push your cuticles back and make more of your nail visible. Use it to also remove dead skin from your nail plate and to help maintain even cuticles.

    Then, apply cuticle oil to nourish the skin surrounding your nails.

    One thing to be careful of is not to apply oil too late in the process. If there is any oily residue still on your nails when you apply polish, the base coat will have trouble adhering.

    3) Buff your nails

    nail tech buffing nails

    Source: Pexels

    Buffing your nails helps to make sure the surface is smooth for application, and primed to bond with the gel.

    4) Clean nails

    nail tech cleaning nails

    Source: Pexels

    Clean your nails thoroughly with rubbing alcohol or cleanser to allow the polish to adhere directly to your natural nail. Any impurities, such as remaining cuticle oil or dust particles, can cause the polish to lift prematurely.

    5) Apply base coat

    nail tech applying base coat

    Source: Pexels

    Now for your first layer of polish. Use a good gel base coat. This will ensure that the polish adheres properly and lasts as long as possible.

    Apply a thin coat over the whole nail, then cure each nail under a UV lamp or LED light to dry it. You’ll want to cure your base coat for at least 30 seconds to a minute before continuing to ensure that it has thoroughly dried.

    Also, make sure to seal the open edges, or cap the free edge, as this process is called. Capping the free edge means to paint over the edge of your nail so that this protective layer gives your nail a chip-free resistant finish.

    Ideally, this process should be done on each layer to ensure the strongest hold.

    6) Apply gel polish

    Applying S&L gel polish to nails

    Shake your polish well before application to ensure that the formula is properly mixed. Then, start on your color.

    Apply each layer in a thin coat all the way to the edges of the nail, being mindful not to stray onto the skin. You want to apply the gel polish as close to the cuticle as possible. If you do make a mistake, simply wipe off the stray polish before curing, so it does not dry and become harder to remove.

    Nail technicians recommend at least two coats of color, but the more you do, the more opaque your application. Don’t worry if the first one looks streaky -- thin layers will do the job better than thick uneven ones.

    Cure your polish in between each coat, placing your nails under the lamp for at least 30 seconds each.

    7) Apply top coat

    nail tech applying top coat

    Source: Pexels

    Once your nail color is applied to your liking, apply a top coat to ensure that the color is sealed and to give your nails that characteristic shine. It is extremely important to cover the entire nail with a top coat, and cap the edges for a perfect seal.

    Cure your nails one last time, for at least a minute, so you can ensure that they are perfectly dried and sealed.

    Sometimes gel will leave a tacky residue after curing, which you can simply wipe off with a cotton ball dipped in alcohol. Then you’re good to go!

    Gel nails after care

    Applying cuticle oil to nails

    Proper nail care ensures that your gel polish continues to look good for as long as possible, and keeps your skin and nails healthy.

    Apply cuticle oil daily while maintaining gel nails. 
    That is, every time you wash your hands, in the morning and at night. Basically, whenever you notice your skin is dry. 

    A good cuticle keeps the nails elastic and skin soft. Mediocre oils wouldn't penetrate and sit on top of the nails.

    How to apply gel polish on acrylic nails

    S&L Glitz and Glam set

    In combining gel polish with acrylic nails, your nail art can last as long as 6 weeks with only minor touch-ups. Familiarize yourself gel vs acrylics nails differences before proceeding.

    Here are the steps we recommend you follow:

    1. Remove old polish with a non-acetone nail polish remover

    This is a necessary step to ensure that any leftover polish is completely removed from the nail.

    You must use a non-acetone remover because acetone can degrade the acrylic.

    2. Clean and dry the nail

    This step ensures that there is no residue left on the nail that could interfere with your application. Your nails must be completely dry as well, because trapped moisture could lead to infection.

    Also, be sure not to use any harsh chemicals, which can react with the acrylic. Your best bet would be to use baby wipes or just wash your hands extra thoroughly.

    3. Apply an acrylic-friendly base coat, colored polish, and top coat

    You can apply gel polish to acrylic nails the same way that you would to your natural nail, using the steps outlined above.

    An acrylic-compatible base coat is necessary to ensure that you do not accidentally stain your acrylics.

    How to apply nail tips with gel overlay

    S&L nail set

    Gel polish can also be applied to store-bought nail tips that can be glued on over your existing nail. The process is similar to regular gel polish application with a few notable differences. 

    1. First, push back your cuticles, buff the surface of your nails, and wipe them clean. 
    2. Then, brush a thin coat of nail glue over each nail. Apply nail tips over each nail, rocking them back and forth to expel any trapped air bubbles.
    3. Adjust the size and shape of the nail tip as needed.
    4. Buff and clean the surface, then apply your gel polish as usual. Start with a base coat, then add at least two layers of color, curing each coat as it is applied. 
    5. Before applying the top coat, wipe off the tacky surface, buff the top layer of color, and clean it. Then apply and cure your top coat, ensuring a lasting seal.

    How to apply nail decals over gel polish

    nail decals over gel polish

    Source: Pixabay

    Once you master basic gel polish application, you can also try your hand at nail art. Nail art designs go hand in hand with gel polish, because the long-lasting formula means that your art will last longer as well.

    One simple method is to use a nail decal. Apply whatever color you want under the design, then cut out the portion of the sticker that you plan to use and apply it.

    If you use a water decal, you can simply dip the sticker in water, separate it from the backing, and apply it to your nail.

    Using a wooden stick or just your finger, smooth out the sticker, and then go over it with polish to fill in any details or add some pops of color.

    Once your nail art looks how you want it to, cure the design for at least 30 seconds, and apply top coat. Cure the top coat layer and you’re ready to start showing off your design!

    What causes gel polish to peel off a few days?

    Here are the three biggest reasons why your gel polish may already begin to peel off a few days: 

    1. You may have painted over your cuticles, so when your skin grows it pushes the painted gel polish down and creates an opening, allowing water to enter and lift the gel polish.
    2. You didn't apply the top coat over the whole nail, so the painted gel polish isn't protected and therefore prone to chipping.
    3. You didn't cap the nail tips when painting over your nails. So when you type or do anything with involving your nails, the gel polish starts to peel off from the nail tips.


    S&L Beauty

    Soon after you have painted your nails, you can start doing daily activities and chores, such as dishes. Just be careful of activities that have a tendency of chipping the tip of your nails, which is where chipping tends to occur most. 

    With this step-by-step guide, you’re ready to expertly apply gel nail polish at home by yourself. 

    If you’re ready to try your hand at DIY gel nails, try our gel nail kit with uv light.



    I am studying acert 111 nail technician course and have first clients for gel polish starting next Tuesday it was good reading this topic of yours

    Miss Emma Walsh October 05, 2023

    Thanks! This helps loads and will forever change the way I did my nails!

    Olivia McDonald October 05, 2023

    Thanks for a well elaborated guidelines.. it was easy to practice

    Leah Thuo November 02, 2022

    Thanks for explaining this, I feel much more confident in doing my own nails.

    Donielle April 21, 2022

    Definitely the best explanation on the web. Thank you for making me more confident in doing my nails at home.

    Sabrina February 22, 2022

    Thank you.

    Jane Determan May 23, 2022

    Thank you for the I know and understand the do’s and don’ts.

    Lati January 12, 2022

    Thank you for the clear tuition.
    Just a question if using nail stickers or wraps is it still ok to apply a gel top coat?

    Tracey May 23, 2022

    This is an outstanding comprehensive and easy to grasp explanation of all parts of the process – absolutely the best I have read online to cover all of the questions I have had as a beginner – thank you so much!

    J. E. Telfer December 06, 2021

    This explanation was brilliant thanks a lot for the effort in writing it made my life a lot more easier in understanding how the process works!

    Seda November 20, 2021

    after reading this, im excited to try myself!!

    Celine September 30, 2021

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