DIY: The UV-Cured Manicure Experience + A Short History of Gel Polish

I’ve been sucking at my portion of the Pragmatic Beauty blogosphere lately (I so sorry!) It’s been an intense few weeks with a cold to boot, but I think things are calming down now.

DIY UV-cured manicures have been a beauty passion of mine for the last two years in my life, and I can say confidently that I have zero regrets in my investment in an at-home setup. You do need a few things to start (I’ll list them later in the blog), but your initial investment isn’t much more than $200-250.

Let me start by saying that’s a nail polish obsessed individual, this is how I feel after two days of wearing the same colour:


Committing to more than a week to two whole weeks of one colour is wild if you ask me, and shelling out $40-$50 per manicure is equally wild to me. Since I haven’t felt the mood to paint my nails frequently since I got a UV lamp and polishes, I’m okay with not having to bother at all save twice a month (if I decide to even bother). That’s relatable, right?

This story begins after receiving a plethora peeling professional UV-cured manicures (aka, UV or LED) at salons. I had “the straw that broke the camel’s back” of gel manicures: I stood in the shower in Mexico peeling off my Gelish that had been chipping like crazy within four days of getting it done. I said to myself “enough’s enough, I’ll do it myself”. The featured image is my hack job trying to cover up the massive chunk that came off pre-trip. Gah.

I can name three light-cured manis in my time of receiving them (let’s say 20 in the span of 5 years?) that did not peel within a week. One actually stayed on so well I had to scrub it off with a nail file until all of the polish was gone.

A week after mulling over the “eff it, I’ll do it myself!” cost/benefit, I went to Saskatoon. An extended family member of mine happens to be a nail tech, so I tagged along with her to the beauty supply store where nail techs stock up. With her guidance, I shelled out the $230 for a lamp, 3 coloured CND Shellac polishes, a base coat, top coat, giant stack of lint-free gauze, a bottle of 100% acetone, a shaping file and a buffer. Wowza.

On a Sunday night, I spent an hour and a half doing my nails and watching Gilmore Girls. It was pretty nice, actually. It felt more like a science experiment than actually painting my nails. Sounds pathetic because, let’s be honest, it is a little.

What you need to get started (I’ve listed approximate prices):

  • 99% Isopropyl Rubbing Alcohol ($5)
  • Lint-free gauze pads ($5) – a giant pack of 200 will last you at the very least a year
  • Your UV lamp ($100-ish, sometimes more, sometimes less depending on the quality of lamp you’re looking at) – I wish I had one with a timer, but I use my phone timer; no big deal
  • 100% acetone ($5)
  • Nail file ($1)
  • Buffer ($1)
  • Cuticle pusher / scraper (I like my metal one a lot) ($15)
  • Base coat ($20) – Some people (haha, me) are anal about mixing polish systems (using another brand’s base / top coat with a different brand’s colour coat), but largely it’s about prepping and curing correctly.
  • Top coat ($20)
  • Colour coat ($20)

Total approximate initial cost: $192

How to DIY a UV-Cured Mani:

  1. Push back and trim cuticles
  2. Buff nails
  3. Cleanse the nails – using your rubbing alcohol and lint-free gauze pads, wipe down the nail bed (Personally, I don’t think you can do this enough, especially if you have oily nail beds like I do).
  4. If your system has a pH bonder, apply it to your nails
  5. Apply a thin layer of base coat and cure under the light for the manufacturer’s suggested amount of time (usually no more than 1-2 minutes). TIP: Do one hand at a time if you’re just starting out so you’re not going back and forth between your dominant and non-dominant hand. I like to start painting with my non-dominant hand; I tend to be more careful and take more time at the start). I also cure my thumbs separately / do them together at the end to cure thumbnails evenly, since my lamp doesn’t allow me to place my entire hand inside of it, and the light is situated at the top, not around like some salon lights.
  6. Apply 2-3 colour coats in thin layers, curing each layer for the suggested amount of time (2 mins tops), capping your tips with colour and leaving a small gap around the cuticle. TIP: CND’s Shellac is a hybrid polish; the bottle needs a good shaking before you apply, otherwise it separates and applies translucent. Other brands I’ve worked with haven’t needed shaking.
  7. Apply a thin layer of top coat, ensuring you cover the entire nail and cure. I like CND’s top coat because isn’t crazy thick and is easy to handle when you’re starting out. Can you tell I like CND?
  8. After curing, wipe off the sticky film residue on your nails with your lint-free gauze pads and rubbing alcohol. The final product should not appear much thicker than regular nail polish.

Removing a Gel Manicure

  1. Buff or file off the top layer of polish; it should make your polish look matte if it was glossy.
  2. Using 100% acetone, saturate a cotton pad and apply over the nail. Usually wait time is 10-15 minutes. You can purchase reusable caps that you insert cotton pads into, or use the foil method (literally, cut up 10 pieces of foil to cover the cotton pad, place the foil over the cotton and shape it to your nail. You’ll look like an alien).
  3. Remove each foil cover one at a time and scrape off the polish with an orange stick or metal cuticle pusher starting at the cuticle and working towards the tip of the nail. If you’re having trouble getting the polish off, you may need to let the acetone sit for longer, or buff off the remaining residue. I find the base coat can be stubborn to remove. If it hurts to scrape off the polish, stop, add more acetone to your foil cover and pop it back on. If you’ve tried this more than 3 times and it’s still not coming off, seek professional help. Trust me, it sucks ripping off part of your nail.

A Brief History of UV-Cured Nail Polish

UV-cured nail polish technology has been around since the 1980s. The polishes didn’t take off, since the UV light manufacturers and the corresponding polish hadn’t joined forces. Clients’ cuticles were also burning (ouch), so this was not a good scene. They came back on the market in the 1990s with improved formulas.

The UV polish market has been very successful in the last few years, I suspect in tandem with the explosion of the nail polish market itself.

The Amazeballs Science Behind UV/LED-Cured Polish and Paint

I’m still blown away by the concept of paint that cures under a UV light. It’s been around since the 1960s.

Gel polishes cure because of a free radical reaction when the photoinitiator in the polish’s resin reacts with the wavelengths emitted by the UV or LED lamp.

The easy breakdown:

The polish contains monomers + photoinitiator (which makes it light-sensitive, of course) = together we get polymerizers. Toss in a UV light, aka the activator, and boom! Shellac / gel / UV-cured polish!

The photoinitiators decompose into free radicals when the UV light is introduced, and “polymerize”, or cure as a final product on your fingernails.

NSI explains it better than I can. How kind of them!

Skin Cancer?

The UV light to cure Shellac or Gelish-type polishes is often likened to a tanning bed, which, IMHO, is a little extreme since your hands aren’t really under the UV light for more than 30 seconds to 2 minutes at a time. This article sums it up nicely in a “you probably shouldn’t worry about it much, but wear sunscreen on your hands if you want to go the preventative route” kind of way. Such was my impression. Skin cancer? Nah.

Application and Brand Preferences

CND’s formula, which I particularly like, is a clinger (at least for me; everyone’s body chemistry is different with respect to which nail polishes stick or don’t stick). It applied nicely! I like formulas that are on the thinner side; I feel as though I have better control over them. This brand has served me well.

To explore CND and other brands to get you started on your DIY Gelicure journey, check out Nail Polish Canada for tools, polishes, and supplies.

Good luck and happy polymerizing!




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