I Tried an At-Home Powder Gel Manicure Kit — Here’s Where a Nail Tech Says I Went Wrong

published Apr 27, 2021
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Being at home more than ever in the past year was a catalyst for change: Many people thought outside of their usual box when it came to things they used to take for granted. For me, that meant paying more attention to my nails once I noticed that the more time I spent at home, the less mindful I was about my hands. It was as if not hearing my nails clicking rhythmically on a keyboard all day was enough reason to let them grow unchecked. Before state-wide shutdowns, I was a regular at the nail salon, especially when my nails need some heavy TLC. When that was no longer an option, I had to look at alternatives for their pampering, and I’m not the only one. 

When stay-at-home orders forced many local nail salons to close, plenty of people turned to at-home kits to indulge in a moment of self-care during uncertain times. This isn’t altogether surprising, given that while trips to the salon are a treat, nail art has long been a home activity, filling time at sleepovers and relaxing nights in as a form of creative self-expression. It can be daunting but doable to make mini masterpieces with polish, and craft the perfect manicure on yourself or a loved-one at your “at home” nail studio. 

But standard polish tends to chip, giving rise to at-home gel manicures and dip powder manicure kits meant to mimic pricier options at the salon. The latter option streamlines the process of getting a long-lasting powder gel manicure without stepping foot outside your door. However, if not done correctly, you could do more damage to your nails than good.

Which begs the question: Are dip powder nail kits a DIY or a Don’t?

Full disclosure, I’ve only ever done my nails with the usual lacquer and have never worn acrylics. Gel manicures have intimidated me for years due to my worry about harming my natural nails. But when I saw my sister-in-law’s dip powder manicure on social media, I was inspired to try one for myself. Plus, now that I had plenty of time on my (bare) hands, I felt ready to dress them up. I bought a Peppi Gel dip powder starter kit online and figured that as long as I followed the instructions to the T, I’d get it right in one try.

Wrong. So very wrong. Dip kits take more precision than it seems — or at least more than I’m used to.

How to DIY a Powder Dip Manicure at Home:

Step 1: Prep Your Supplies

The first mistake I made was assuming that everything I needed was already in the kit or available to me at home. What more could you need besides clippers, files, and polish remover? But as Tricia Atkinson, a nail technician in Richmond, VA, tells Apartment Therapy, you need to prepare your nails thoroughly — and effectively — before applying a gel nail set. “For materials, you’ll need to start with basics: nail clipper, nail file, buffer, and of course your dip system of choice,” she says. “I would start with a clean and bright workspace. Make sure you wash your hands, don’t forget to trim and file your natural nails to your liking, and always push those cuticles back.”

Step 2: Apply the Bonding Agent, Then the Powder — and Repeat

Some steps overlap with regular nail care, but there’s a process to applying dip powder that’s more involved than simply dipping your nails in the powder, as the name implies. 

  • First, you need to apply the bonding agent that the powder will stick to. 
  • After a few layers of applying the glue like you would a polish then dipping your fingertip into the powder, you set it with an activator, and then add the shiny top coat.

Step 3: Budget Time for Mistakes, Especially on Your First Try

If mistakes happen in the bonding stage, it might require a complete redo. Since the gel can’t be wiped away with a usual bottle of nail polish remover, fixing a mistake requires soaking your nails in a bowl of water and pure acetone for up to 30 minutes, as well as using a nail file to grind away the top layer for easier soaking.

“You want to make sure that you buff off the shine to help speed up the soaking process,” says Atkinson. “But if you do not have that on hand, soak your nails in warm soapy water.” She recommends adding a drop or two of olive oil to soothe your cuticles and then soaking for about 20 to 30 minutes. (Yep, really.) “Then, lightly push the gel polish off with a wooden cuticle pusher, and buff and file any excess polish off,” she adds.

Even with those tips in mind, my first pass at a dip manicure was rough going. It wasn’t that my polish was lumpy, but the color on each nail was definitely thicker and messier around the edges than it should have been. I ended up at the beauty supply store shortly after, hiding my hands in shame as I bought acetone to soak it off.

The Pros and Cons of a DIY Powder Dip Manicure

Despite my messy manicure, I still have good things to say about the process. I like how bright and durable the gel is after application. With standard polish, I tend to behave more delicately with my hands because it seems like the polish will chip or lift from the smallest tap, no matter how the strength of my top coat coverage. 

On the other hand, this durability also means that it’s more difficult to clean around the edges of your nail once the powder is set. “Cleaning up around the cuticles with dip powder can be a bit tricky since the adhesive is technically glue,” says Atkinson. She recommends using an electric file with a precision tip, such as this rose-gold portable tool from Alle’s.

“After the application, if you do not have an e-file, I would recommend hand-filing around the cuticles and free edge,” she adds. From my own experience, hand filing works best if you have a strong file — and my metal nail file was far more effective than my emery board.

Aside from the vibrant, glittery color of my gel set, the ultra-fast drying time was my favorite feature of the dip powder kit. One key benefit to dip powder manicures is that they don’t require UV light for the polish to harden the way gel manicures do. The FD classifies UV lamps as low risk but suggests wearing gloves that only expose your nails or wearing sunscreen prior to using the lamp to reduce exposure to any potentially harmful rays. This doesn’t necessarily mean that gel manicures should be off the table forever: “Even the most intense of these devices present only a moderate UV risk — a far lower risk than that presented by UV tanning devices,” dermatologist Elizabeth K. Hale, MD, explained on SkinCancer.org. However, if you’d prefer to avoid UV at all costs and have your gel manicure, too, dip powder is a viable UV-free option.

My powder dip manicure is growing out — how do I fix it?

There are other factors to keep in mind to preserve your nails’ health, especially if you want to continue dip nail sets in the future. “The most common mistake I see is that people don’t soak off the nails before each new set,” Atkinson says, urging people against filling in any bare growth with more powder as a “quickie” way to top your manicure off. Doing so can lock water or other moisture between your nail and the powder, which is a major risk. “You do not want to trap any moisture between your nails,” she explains. “It can cause mold and fungus.” It’s also good to avoid picking, plucking, or prying at the gel if it lifts as doing so can cause damage to your nails underneath. Instead, soak the chipping polish off and start fresh.

It’s also worth investing in cuticle oil to keep your nail beds hydrated between manicures. Contrary to popular belief, oils simply lock in moisture rather than imbuing your skin with it, so only use a cuticle oil after applying moisturizer to your hands. “Cuticle oil does wonders for the nails, especially during fall and winter.” Atkinson advises, “To keep your nails and cuticles hydrated, cuticle oil and hand lotion is a must! It actually improves your nail health, making them stronger!”

DIY or Don’t?: The Results

In this instance, perfect really won’t happen without a lot of practice. Doing your own dip powder nail set isn’t impossible, but it might take some getting used to before getting it right. Also, remember that preparation is key — and that while making mistakes won’t ruin your manicure, having the right tools to correct them will save you a lot of time and trouble.

Even so, while the thought of DIY dip powder manicures is appealing, I think I’ll leave this technique to skilled professionals. I love how gel nails look, how quickly they dry, and the dipping process is fun; but I realized that I’d much rather sit and wait for standard nail lacquer to set after application than wait for it to break down enough to come off when I’m more than ready to see it go. When the day comes for me to visit a salon again, I’ll give gel or powder polish another try; this time, in the care of expert hands.