Beginner’s Guide: How to Apply Gel Polish

Beginner’s Guide: How to Apply Gel Polish

Whether you want a longer-lasting manicure or are just ready to level up your at-home manicure game and learn something new, applying gel nail polish is a new approach to traditional nail polish manicures with much longer-lasting results.

In some ways, gel polish is pretty similar to regular nail polish, but in other ways, it’s so different. So, toss away your quick-dry topcoat and get yourself an LED lamp. Bid farewell to chips on day two of wear and give yourself a manicure that will last for weeks. We’re here to explain how to get a flawless gel nail polish application on your first try as a beginner with all the tips and tricks for newbies and professionals alike. 

Tips for Your Best Gel Manicure

Looking for some insider advice from the pros on what to do and what not to do when painting with gel nail polish? You’ve come to the right place. Let’s dive into the tips you need to know. 

Don’t Soak the Nails

When you soak your nails in warm water during a manicure, the point is to soften the cuticles so they are easier to trim as well as add to the soothing, luxurious experience of warm water and a hand massage. 

But when you are painting with gel nail polish, this is a traditional step that must be skipped. The reason is that when your nails absorb water, they expand. As they dry, they contract back to their regular state. If you apply gel nail polish and cure it on an expanded nail, when it goes back to its normal size the polish won’t adhere properly and your manicure will have a shorter lifespan. Plus, you’ll experience premature chipping and flaking. 

Pro Tip: If you need to slough off dead, dry cuticles, instead of soaking the nails in water to soften them, give your client’s fingers a waterless sugar scrub. Just be sure it’s all cleaned off with alcohol wipes prior to polishing.  

Care for the Cuticles

Just because you aren’t soaking your fingernails, doesn’t mean you should be neglecting the cuticles. Pushing back the cuticle will make for a larger nail bed (AKA a bigger canvas to paint on). If you have a layer of skin at the end of the nail, the gel polish won’t adhere to the nail and will stick to the skin instead. Neglecting the cuticles will cause premature lifting and the gel manicure won’t last as long as it should. 

Buff, Buff, Buff

Buffing will ensure the nail plate is free and clear of any remaining dead skin lingering near the cuticles. This is also crucial for removing the nail’s natural oil and shine, which could act as a barrier between the nail and the polish.  

Pro Tip: Be sure you’re buffing the nail on all sides, edges, and inner corners. Leave no surface area of the nail unbuffed! 


After all the filing and buffing, you will most definitely have residual dust and possibly pieces of skin on the nail leftover. Use a lint-free wipe or cleanser to clean off the nail so none of that will get stuck beneath the gel polish. 

Short Strokes

While you may be used to applying regular polish in long, fluid strokes, your approach to applying gel nail polish is quite the opposite. Since you are dealing with a polish with a thicker consistency, it is not as easy to control. Short strokes will ensure you get nice even lines around the edges and will be easier to handle. 

Cap the Edge

“Capping” the edge of the nail means painting polish on a single stroke onto the end of the nail. Putting a cap on the edge of the nail essentially seals up all your hard work and will help prevent the polish from lifting, making for a more long-lasting manicure. 

The Topcoat Is Key

Don’t underestimate the power of the topcoat. It should be applied when you are satisfied with the gel polish pigment, the paint job, and after the color is cured. When finishing with the topcoat, be sure you don’t miss anywhere on the nail where you painted with color gel. If some of the color is left uncovered by the topcoat, it will appear matte in some places as opposed to a full high-sheen across the entire nail. 

Tricks for Applying Polish

Now that you know some great tips, it’s time to learn some insider tricks. These are the ways you can make your gel nail polish job even better, easier, and more efficient. 

Paint in Thin Layers

Switching from regular nail polish to gel is definitely an adjustment. You won’t need as much polish on the brush as you would with regular nail polish. If you start with too much gel, you’ll experience “pooling” or “flooding,” which is when the gel polish drips to the bottom of the nail and gets super thick around the cuticles and nail edge. Using thin coats will allow you to control the placement of the product better and help to avoid this problem.  

Less Is More When It Comes to Polish

With gel nail polish, a little goes a long way. Be sure to not have too much gel on your brush and don’t try to have such a pigmented color on the first coat. Three to four coats of thin coats of gel nail polish will come out much better than two thick coats. 

Fix Mistakes Before Curing

There’s a whole scientific explanation for how UV/LED light-activated gel nail polish works, but basically the resin in the nail polish reacts to the wavelengths emitted by the lamp and it hardens, adhering to the nail. Because of this, be sure to fix all mistakes or polish mishaps before curing the nail under the light. After it cures, it will be much harder to fix. 

Lotion the Skin Surrounding the Nail

If you don’t have the most steady hand, you can cover your bases by being proactive and taking a small step to save you from cleanup later on. You can use a q-tip or nail brush to apply lotion to your client’s cuticles before starting to paint the nail. This way, if you accidentally get some gel nail polish where you don’t want it, it will easily wipe off the skin. 

What You’ll Need to Do a Gel Manicure

Before we get into all the details about what to do, you’ll need specific tools in order to do it. Here’s your checklist: 

  • Cuticle pusher
  • Nail file and nail buffer
  • Nail dehydrator (optional, but recommended)
  • Basecoat 
  • Rubbing alcohol 
  • UV/LED Lamp
  • Gel nail polish - color 
  • Gel nail polish - top coat 

Step By Step

This is not a drill. If we are doing this, we plan to do it right and won’t settle for less than spectacular! Nobody wants to walk around in drab gel nails, even if it is their first stab at applying it. Follow these steps to nail your first gel polish manicure. 

  1. File nails to the desired shape
  2. Push down the cuticles, clearing any skin from the nail plate
  3. Buff the entire nail, getting off any leftover skin from the nail plate
  4. Clean nails with an alcohol wipe 
  5. Apply nail dehydrator (optional) 
  6. Apply a thin coat of the base coat and cure under the UV/LED lamp for 30 seconds.
  7. Shake gel nail polish color to ensure the formula is properly mixed.
  8. Polish each nail with a thin layer of color in short strokes.
  9. Cure under the lamp after each coat for 60 seconds. 
  10. Cap each nail. 
  11. Apply the topcoat to the entire nail and add a cap. 
  12. Wipe each nail with rubbing alcohol. 
  13. Moisturize cuticles with cuticle oil. 
  14. Love your new gel manicure! 

In Conclusion

Gel nail polish is completely different from regular nail polish. From the consistency and the way it dries to best practices when applying it, it’s not the same polish at all. Refer back to this ultimate list of tips and tricks when trying to figure out how to apply gel nail polish for the first time with the best results. 


  1. Why You Shouldn't Soak Hands Before a Manicure | Allure   
  2. The Science of Gels: How Gel Nail Products Work | Nails Mag 
  3. 10 Steps to the Perfect DIY At-Home Manicure | Glamour