The Easy Mistake That's Ruining Your At-Home Gel Manicure

So you've mastered the at-home manicure. You know how to perfectly shape your own nails, buff them to perfection, and glide on that polish like a boss. You decide to take the next step: gel. This is where things get tricky.

No matter how many times you've observed a nail technician perform the miracle that is a gel polish on your fingers, doing it yourself is no easy feat. The process is more complicated than a regular manicure, leaving room for a lot to go wrong. My first at-home gel experience went surprisingly smoothly, but my second time around? Not so much. Despite following gel protocol to a T, something went so wrong — leaving many air bubbles behind — that I ended up panicking and peeling off the gel three days later. (A huge no-no, as doing so can tear up the surface of your nails.)

Here's what happened and how to avoid it.

The Air Bubble Problem
UnSplash | Kris Atomic

The Air Bubble Problem

Nothing went wrong during the manicure itself — or so I thought. I prepped my nails accordingly; I applied a base, three coats of polish, and a top coat, curing each layer under my LED lamp. They looked good, albeit slightly thicker than usual.

Fifteen minutes later, I hopped in the shower, and that's when I started to notice the bubbles. You know how sometimes regular polish can cause bubbles on the surface of your nails? This wasn't that. These were significant air pockets under the layers of my manicure. It was almost as if the heat from the shower was warping them in some way. I tried to smooth them down, but the air would just migrate to another area of the nail.

It was weird, but not altogether noticeable if you're not already fixated on the problem. I had already dedicated two hours to perfecting this manicure, so I just left it.

Two days later, the air trapped under the polish on my thumb found a way out; the outer side of the manicure had essentially broken open, and the polish was still gooey. I was on a trip that weekend, and I had to borrow a nail file and remover from the hostess to get off the gel entirely. On the flight home the next day, I peeled the gel off every nail, and half still had wet lacquer trapped under the surface.

What Causes the Air Bubbles in Gel Manicures?
UnSplash | Joanna Kosinska

What Causes the Air Bubbles in Gel Manicures?

I had already completed one successful manicure using the same kit, so I knew the issue didn't lie with the products. I must have done something wrong during the process — but what? I consulted two pros to find out, and the answer was embarrassingly obvious.

"The gel could have been applied too heavily," NYC-based nail stylist Elle said. "Opaque colors need thinner layers because the photo initiators on the bottom do not see the light in order to cure."

Celebrity manicurist Gina Edwards confirmed that the most common issues with at-home gel manicures occur during application. "Thin layers are key," she said. "If you apply thick layers, this gives the gel too much flexibility to lift within the layers, causing air pockets and then peeling."

After years of thickly applying regular polish, I forgot that you're not supposed to pile on gel. The light needs to see the color pigments in the gel in order for each layer to set, and I'd just glopped it on, hoping for a thick shell of a manicure. The top coat had cured properly, thanks to three minutes until the lamp, but it was like a hard chocolate shell over melty ice cream.

The Solution

The Solution

The answer is pretty simple: apply thin layers, and allow enough time for each layer to cure under the light. The pros had a few other tips for preventing bubbles, as well.

"Before applying gel, NEVER shake the bottle and start applying," Edwards said. "Always roll between your hands and begin application." She also warned not to leave the gel bottle too close to the UV/LED lamp. "This alters the gel and can create a partial cure before you place on the nail."

Elle reminded me that prep is key. When I mentioned my theory that the shower had warped the polish, she said, "It's not after a gel manicure that you have to worry about water, it's before. The nails need to be dehydrated and lint-, oil-, and lotion-free. Always swipe nails with a lint-free wipe using an alcohol-based prep before application of gel . . . If any oils or lint were on the 'inhibition layer' (sticky layer that is left after cure), this can cause the gaps in the gels and improper adhesion between layers."