Press-On Nails
Photo by carolyn christine on Unsplash

For those of us who want the nail art without the price tag, the coffin shape without the long grow-out period, or the manicure without leaving the house, press-on nails are little plastic godsends. Once you’ve nailed the art of press-on application, the next level of DIY manicure is learning how to remove those press-on nails at home. The good news is that according to the experts, the designs on your press-ons may be complicated, but the removal process is not.

In the professional opinion of celebrity nail artist Julie Kandalec, press-ons are, in a word, awesome. “Press-ons are easy to take off because they’re usually just plastic,” she says. “They come off fast and easy versus something like acrylic or gel. They’re easy on, easy off, and that’s why I love them.”

Another piece of good news? The longer you’ve worn your press-ons, the easier it’ll be to remove them. “I like to get as much wear out of my press ons before removing them so that the bond has loosened a bit,” says Rachel James, founder of Pear Nova salon in Chicago. This is one of the few times in life when procrastination actually works in your favor, so take advantage!

Damage is always a concern with nail removal, but according to Kandalec, any damage to the natural nail underneath typically occurs before applying the press-ons, not during the removal process. (She often reminds her clients not to over-file the bed of the natural nail before application, which is the most common mistake she sees in her New York City atelier.) That means that you shouldn’t skip out on the joy of press-ons because you’re worried about what may happen to the nails underneath. And don’t let the step-by-step removal process below psych you out: if you’ve already waded through the wide world of press-on nail options to choose your set, the hardest part of this at-home manicure is done. All that’s left is to do is grab your hundred-percent acetone or liquid soap, channel your inner nail tech, and get down to business.

Ahead, nail experts share their fool-proof tricks for removing press-on nails at home. The hardest part of the process will be choosing with YouTube video to watch as you soak your nails — and deciding which set you’ll apply next.

Tools You’ll Need to Remove Press-On Nails:

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Start With a File (Optional)

Not all of our expert nail technicians begin by filing the nails, but Kandalec recommends doing so for press-ons studded with 3D accents like rhinestones. “Filing first not only thins the press-on, but the rough surface allows the acetone [or soap] to penetrate more easily into the crevices, and then the nail comes up faster,” she says. Use your backup pair of cuticle nippers to chip away at the crystals or other accents before the next step: soaking the nails.

How to Soak-Off Press-On Nails

Next, set up your soaking station. Our nail experts recommend working with either acetone or basic liquid dish soap to melt your press-ons. Fill a small bowl (or two, if you’re giving yourself a spa-style treatment) with about two to three inches of warm water and a hearty squirt of liquid dish soap, says James. (Liquid hand soap will work, but dish soap is best, says Mabelyn Martin, the creative director at NYC’s Paintbox.)

Keep your fingers submerged for about 15 minutes. “About 10 minutes in, you can begin to press the tips up and down to loosen the tips from the natural nail,” says Martin. Be sure to do so gently, the way you’d wiggle a baby tooth on the verge of falling out — no picking or plucking.

According to James, the soap method makes it easier to save the set if you plan to wear the press-ons again. But when you know you’re done with this particular set for good, Kandalec prefers to melt the tips right down with pure acetone. The same method applies, although acetone may move more quickly than dish soap: Soak the nails in a few inches of liquid until you can feel the press-on start to loosen.

Remove the Press-On Nail

With your press-ons good and soaked (and maybe even melted into mush from the acetone), it’s time to bite the bullet. “Using an orangewood stick, begin to gently lift off the press-on. Never force them off,” says Martin. If the nail doesn’t release easily, go back a step and submerge your nails once again for a few extra minutes. Martin also recommends adding a drop of cuticle oil under the press-on, which can help create slip.

Buff Away the Evidence

Once you’re back to your natural nails, use a buffer to remove any leftover adhesive. Martin reminds us that the key word for this step is “gentle.” If large chunks of adhesive still remain on the nail, return to your trusty soaking dish; the buffer should be used only on a small amount of residual adhesive.

Re-Hydrate the Hands and Nails

Compared to other falsies like gel extensions or acrylics, press-on nails are far less likely to damage the nails. Still, the soaking process may lead to some dryness or irritation, says New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner M.D.. “When you remove fake nails, make sure to pay attention to your skin barrier,” he says. “Stick to a good hand moisturizer to keep the outer skin layer in tip-top shape.”

In addition to re-hydrating the hands, James recommends sprucing up the nails with a cuticle oil. There’s an abundance of options for maintaining moisture in the hands and nails, but Kandelic’s favorites include Weleda Skin Food Ultra-Rich Cream for hands and Essie Apricot Cuticle Oil or Deborah Lippman Cuticle Oil for nails.

If fake nails do damage the surface of your nails, Zeichner reminds us that you’ll have to wait for your nails to grow out to see true improvement in nail quality. “You can buff the nails and protect them with regular nail polish, but since the keratin in nails is dead tissue, it doesn’t repair itself the way that your skin does,” he says.

Pick Your Next Set

Another reason why nail artists prefer press-ons to gels and acrylics? You can reapply a new set right away. “As long as you didn’t pick or peel off the press-ons, you’re generally good to apply new ones immediately,” says Kandalec. Why not apply them now while all your nail tools are still out?


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