I tested several at-home gel manicure kits both with and without UV lamps — these 5 will give you salon-like results
If you want a true in-salon experience at home, a gel manicure kit can provide one. These kits are different from gel nail polishes and actually cure with a UV lamp for longer wear. We tested the kits and spoke to an expert about protecting your hands from UV damage, below.
It used to be that the only way to get a salon-quality manicure was to make an appointment at a salon. Now, you can achieve that same high shine and long-wearing nail look you covet from the comfort of your own home. There are two ways to score a stylist-level manicure without ever having to leave your living room. You can take a shortcut, and opt for gel nail polishes that emit a glossy finish without the help of a lamp. Or you can invest in a complete DIY gel manicure kit that comes fully equipped with everything you need to create a traditional gel manicure — including base and top coats, a UV lamp, and a color polish. After testing a handful of these kits, we’ve rounded up our top five below, and chatted with two experts about best practices of at-home gel manicures.
Best DIY Gel Manicure Kit Overall
Red Carpet Manicure Gel Polish Pro Kit is a salon-quality system with salon-quality results.
Pros: Last up to 21 days, comes with all the tools you need for a salon-quality manicure
Cons: Longer time commitment, removal process is very messy
Red Carpet Manicure Gel Polish Pro Kit not only has rave reviews from customers, but their queue of UV lamps look like something you’d find at a professional nail salon. I’m pleased to report it performs like salon equipment, too.
The Pro Kit includes a pre- and post-application cleanser, remover, base coat, top coat, one gel nail polish, cuticle oil, adhesion sanitizer (to clean the nail prior to your base coat application), a UV lamp, and prepping utensils. While the multi-step manicure can feel overwhelming, each serves a purpose and adds to gorgeous nails, so I don’t recommend skipping them.
This UV lamp also works on a timer, and cures nails in about 45 seconds. The entire process takes about 20 minutes. It’s a longer time commitment than other UV lamps on our list, but the end result is unparalleled, so I really appreciate Red Carpet Manicure’s attention to detail.
I found only one con worth mentioning, and it’s a major one: The kit comes with foils that have a little square cotton pad on them, and to remove your gel manicure, the directions say to “saturate the pad on the foil wrap” with Red Carpet Manicure’s Erase Gel Nail Polish acetone remover (also included in the kit). The problem is, if you actually saturate the pad, the acetone drips and gets all over, making it a very messy process — so much so that it dripped onto my wooden table and caused a yellow stain. All this to say, make sure wherever you remove your nail polish, that you have a few protective layers over the surface you’re working on.
Best DIY Gel Manicure Kit For Healthy Nails
Zoya’s gel kit prioritizes nail and cuticle health, which sets it apart from other gel manicure kits.
Pros: Can create a naked or color manicure, easy to remove
Cons: Only available on the retailer’s website, colors sold separately
The Zoya Gelie-Cure Foundation Pro Kit makes nail health a priority. The kit comes with a slew of products to help strengthen and nourish nails, including a hydrating rescue serum and a repair base to smooth any ridges or separations.
The kit also includes the brand’s Gelie-Cure Naked Gelie coat, the first demi-gel multipurpose gel formula of its kind to hit the market. You apply it directly over Zoya’s Repair Base before curing, and it adheres to the base coat, as well as the rescue serum, in order to ensure “high shine, flexible, fileable and damage free results,” per the product’s description. Naked Gelie is the last step in achieving a “naked manicure,” aka a manicure void of color, enhancing your natural nails, and also only takes two minutes to remove, without acetone, scraping, or pushing at the nail.
What sets Zoya’s DIY gel manicure kit from its competitors, is its versatility. You can create a gorgeous naked mani, or opt for traditional, colorful tips. Unfortunately, the kit doesn’t come with color polish, but you can apply your favorite hue over the foundation, top it with Naked Manicure Glossy Seal Topcoat, and follow up with a drop of the Zoya Fast Drops to accelerate your drying time.
In addition to creating gorgeous manicures, Gelie-Cure is a repairing system that brings damaged nails back to health with its prepping formulas and serums. Plus, it keeps nails safe while offering users the chance to experiment with color: You can add and remove color as many times as you’d like for up to 7 days without any repercussions.
Best DIY gel manicure kit for beginners
Drugstore favorite Sally Hansendesigned a DIY gel manicure system perfect for novice nail artists.
Pros: Easy to use, quick process, compatible with gel nail polish from other brands
Cons: Color doesn’t last very long
Sally Hansen’s Salon Pro Gel Nail Polish kit is my top pick for beginner nail artists looking to channel a true salon experience at home. The kit contains everything you need for a traditional, no-frills gel manicure: a base coat, color, and topcoat, acetone remover, and LED light. It also comes with application accessories, including a cuticle stick and buffer to prep the nails, plus alcohol cleansing pads to wipe any tacky residue sticking to the nails after they’ve been cured.
The Salon Pro Gel Nail Polish Kit was the first I tested, and the first traditional gel manicure I’d ever had. As a beginner, I appreciated that each bottle was labeled one through three to specify which order to use them in. Directions on how to use the kit were also written on the box, as well as in an instructional pamphlet, so the margin of error was slim.
Overall, my experience with the kit was a positive one, but there are some cons worth mentioning. For starters, I applied Sally Hansen gel polish on one hand, and a Butter London polish on the other, to test whether or not the lamp worked on other formulas (it does), and to compare the quality of nail polishes. Unfortunately, Sally Hansen chipped after just four days of wear, while the Butter London polish held up for a solid week.
Best DIY Gel Kit for Easy Removal
Butter London’s gel polish peels off nails for easy removal that won’t tarnish your tips.
Pros: Professional-quality lamp, easy removal without damage to the nails
Cons: Works best with Butter London polishes only, USB cord is very short, directions are a little confusing
The worst part about getting a gel manicure is, arguably, taking the nail polish off. Butter London’s PureCure Peel-Off Gel Lacquer kit eliminates that headache with its two-in-one top and base coat formula. The 12-free prep and prime polish negates the need for foil and an acetone wash by making the color removable via peeling: Gently lift the polish up off the nail with your thumbnail or a cuticle pusher and slowly peel off the cured layers.
The brand’s curing lamp has a professional quality to it. The white LED lights are very bright and do not emit any UV rays. The device itself is big enough to stretch your entire hand through. Even though the top and base coat is exclusively compatible with butter London gel polishes, the lamp can be used with any gel formulas.
There are only two downsides to the lamp: The first being, it’s cord is relatively short. I had to pull my coffee table closer to the outlet for it to reach. The second caveat is that the instructions on how to use the PureCure Peel-Off Gel Lacquer Gel Base & Top Coat are confusing. On the bottle, it says to apply a thin layer to the nail and cure before adding color. Nowhere does it say to add an additional coat to the top of the nail. (This might be implied since “top coat” is in the product’s name, but I digress.) This is only specified on the website.
Best Miniature DIY Gel Kit
Orly’s gel kit is compact, so it saves you space, and portable, for manis on-the-go.
Pros: Compact, portable, includes top and base coat, easy to remove, works on other brands’ nail polishes
Cons: Expensive for a miniature lamp
Orly introduced its mini gel lamp back in September of 2020. It’s compact and portable, and can be plugged into any USB power source. In addition to the lamp, the complete bundle includes the brand’s Easy-Off Basecoat, No-Cleanse Top Coat, as well as a nourishing cuticle oil so you can give your nails the real spa treatment.
Orly’s gel lamp is ready to use when you first take it out of the box. It needs to either be charged or plugged into a USB power source like a USB power adapter you can plug into the wall, or laptop (though, you might need an adaptor for this option as well). The convenience of this feature really depends on whether or not you’re tech savvy.
Once it’s plugged in, hold the button down for the UV light to come on. The light works on a timer, and cures each coat in 60 seconds. However, the instructions do suggest curing the final top coat for up to 90 seconds to ensure a longer wear.
Other DIY gel manicure kits we considered:
- Le Mini Macaron Le Maxi Deluxe Gel Manicure Set($60): Overall, this DIY gel manicure kit is easy to use. The directions are straightforward, and the nail polish cures quickly and without a sticky residue, even without a top coat. That said, I was quick to notice the kit doesn’t come with a top coat or base coat. The directions also don’t mention best practices for how to apply them, either. Le Mini Macaron does sell two top coats: a shine formula and a matte formula. I wish the kit would include one or the other, especially given its price point. The kit also doesn’t work as well with other brands’ polishes, which is limiting.
- Enova Cosmetics Gel Nail Polish Kit ($45.99): There’s a lot to love about this compact gel kit. For starters, it’s super portable, and will take up hardly any space in your home. It doesn’t require a base or top coat, and the gel polish applies beautifully through a tube. All you have to do is squeeze and the color comes through the bristles that are perfectly shaped to paint an even coat of color over your nails. The reason Enova’s gel kit didn’t make my top 5 list, is because I applied the color on a Sunday, and by Tuesday morning, it was chipping. As much as I love how convenient the system is, the wide array of color options, and how quickly it generated a fabulous manicure, I felt that the lack of base or top coat negatively affected the manicure’s potential for longwear.
Frequently asked questions
How do gel manicures work?
While a lamp-free gel manicure applies like any other polish; you reap the shine of a traditional gel manicure, but not the longwear. A polish that requires curing under UV or LED light, however, contains photo initiators in its formula that cause
polymerization, the process in which a gel polish reacts to the UV light, according to celebrity manicurist Elle. This ensures the polish dries immediately and adheres to the nail plate for a longer wear and high gloss finish, Elle adds.
How can I get a salon-quality gel manicure at home?
Even if you’re not a professional stylist, when attempting to recreate a traditional gel manicure at home, you still need to prep your nails in order to keep them healthy. It involves 3 steps, Elle explains: Cuticle work; cleansing, which restores the nail to its proper ph level; and nail polish application. “If you don’t prep the nails before applying any product on the nail,” Elle warns, “none of your nails will last, no matter what you do.”
Are UV lamps harmful to use with gel manicures?
According to Dr. Annie Gonzalez MD, FAAD, of Riverchase Dermatology, a common misconception about gel lamps is that LED gel devices are safer than those explicitly called UVA lamps. “The fact is that for the gel to harden into the desired look, damaging ultraviolet rays need to be applied,” Gonzalez tells INSIDER. And because UVA rays are the most damaging in the light spectrum, she adds, even a few minutes of exposure can damage the DNA of your hands, fingers, and nails.
In order to combat conditions like melanoma, signs of aging, hyperpigmentations, and general signs of aging that can develop as a result of habitual, long-term exposure of these harmful rays, Gonzalez recommends applying an SPF for protection. “I would suggest [applying the highest SPF] possible because some of the UVA/LED lamps can emit rays more intense than those of the sun,” Gonzalez says. “A zinc-oxide, mineral-based formula will actually apply a protective physical layer between the skin and the rays.”
Our testing criteria
Creating a professional-looking gel manicure takes time, practice, and, above all else, the right tools. But with so many sets on the market, it can be tricky to find the right system that works best for you (not to mention, your budget). To help, we tested a handful of devices to uncover the best DIY gel manicure kits based on the following criteria:
- User-friendliness: Is the UV lamp easy to set up? Does it require charging before use? Does it operate on an automatic timer, or do you have to time how long your nails should be under the lamp?
- Compatibility: Does the lamp work on gel nail polish formulas outside of its own brand?
- Time commitment: Traditional gel manicures can take up to two hours to perfect, depending on your nail artist, but the whole point of an at-home manicure is convenience. How long does the DIY kits process take from start to finish?
- Quality vs cost: Similar to a salon mani, DIY gel manicure kits aren’t cheap. That being said, you get a lot more bang for your buck purchasing a device that can give you a gel manicure whenever you want one.
However, the quality of the kit should reflect the price. In other words, do you get what you pay for?