Gel Overlays 101

Are you someone who loves their natural nails, but wants to add some strength to them or fix a break in a stronger way than the tea bag method? Then welcome to the world of overlays!
This is a guide for those out there that are not nail techs and have no idea where to begin in the world of pro products. If you have any questions, just let me know and I'll add them to this guide!

What exactly is an overlay?
An overlay is where you take a product that is used for creating nail extensions, but only covering your natural nail. Because you aren't extending the length of your nail the product can be thinner and doesn't require any of the structure that we worry about with long nails so it is much easier to do at home.

What type of overlay product should I get?
There are a whole world of products out there that you can use for overlays. The main ones that spring to mind are:
*dipping powders
*hard gel
*silk wrap
If you are a total novice to this with zero training, I recommend going with either a dip system or hard gel. Both are very different systems with totally different products, but similar outcomes. Which one you choose is entirely up to you, it makes no difference to your nail health.

Dip Systems:
Are basically layers of nail glue and fine acrylic powder. Pros - easy to apply, require no light or special equipment, come in a HUGE range of colours (although you want to stick to just clear if you want to paint over it), easy to buy an all-in-one kit. Cons - takes more work to get the end effect totally smooth, degrades easier when you are constantly removing nail polish on top of it (unless you use a gel top coat, but that defies the point), you can't easily extend the nail if you want to venture into the world of fake nails.
If you've ever used ORLY nail rescue, this is just dipping with a bigger price tag. I won't go into full instructions here (unless anyone specifically requests it) because any dip system will come with instructions and it's SUPER easy.

This is a very thick clear product (like gel polish but MUCH thicker) that you lay down on top of the nail. Pros - if applied correctly it won't break down at all when you polish over it so you only need to reapply when it grows out, it is self-levelling so it will have a very smooth finish, for overlays you only need one coat so it is quite quick and easy to do once you get the hang of it, it does come in natural colours but the clear is CRYSTAL clear, you can build extensions out of it. Cons - you will need to buy all the bits separately (unless you want to spend a tonne of money), there's a huge variety of products out there and many of them are slightly different so you need to be careful what you get to start with.

So if there is such a huge range of gel products, where on earth should I begin?
If you are in this to help nurture your natural nails while you grow out a break, make sure you get a gel that says it is soak off! Many hard gels out there do not soak, so to remove you need to file them off. If you haven't had a tonne of practice this is very hard and scary to do without taking off the top layer of your natural nail. Be aware that soak off gel products do take as long as acrylic to soak off which may seem like a pain, but it does mean that when you are constantly changing the nail polish on top, it won't be damaged at all. Soak off gel comes in 2 varieties - in a pot and in a bottle. If you are a beginner, I recommend getting a product in a bottle as it means you paint it onto the nail like you do with polish. Although you can get higher end products, if you want to try it out I can recommend this gel here as a cheap beginner gel. 

What lamp do I need?
You will see on the market both LED lamps and UV lamps. Rather than go into the difference, I suggest just getting an LED lamp. There are some tiny ones out there that are meant for gel polish, but not all of them will work for hard gel. So before you buy anything check that they will cure hard gel. There are still some budget friendly options out there - here is a previous post to the lamp I use, but it is overkill for starting out (but it is very sexy!)

Step by step - how to apply your gel overlay
1. Prep your nails
This is the most important part of making your overlay stay adhered.
Buff the surface of your nails with a 180 grit nail file. Don't be scared, all you're doing is removing the shine of your nail so the gel doesn't slide off. Push back your cuticle (but don't soak your hand to do so). Use a lint-free wipe to scrub the nail with a nail dehydrator or isopropyl alcohol to remove all debris on the nail and dry it out.
A fully prepped nail

2. Prime  (optional)
Depending on which gel you have bought this step may be optional. Very dab a few spots of primer on each nails - one dip into the bottle should be enough to do one hand. When choosing a primer that will keep your nails happy, opt for an acid-free primer. The 2 primers I personally us are Young Nails Protein Bond or Hawley Premabond. If you're starting out you can try without but you risk the overlay lifting from your nail prematurely.
Small amount of primer

3. Forms (optional)
This step ONLY applies if you have a chip taken out of a nail, or if you've had one nail break and want to make it the same length of the others. Get your nail form and slide it under the broken nail, then pinch the bottom of the form together and stick it onto your finger (this is a bit of an art form and hard to explain in text - if you have troubles look it up on YouTube).
A long form fitted - there are many styles of forms but any will work for this

4. Application
Pick up a decent amount of product and float it onto the nail so you get an even coat over the nail, trying to not get any bubbles, then pop it into your nail for 5 seconds, remove your hand and wait for it to cool (from what we call a heatspike) and then pop it back in for a minute.
If you are extending or filling in a chip, put the product just where the missing nail is and cure. Then apply over the whole nail as above. (Note that you can't go totally crazy and decided that you want giant talons this way - longer nails require more structure so there's a few more steps you would need to do so they don't snap).
Apply a small amount of gel to where nail is missing then cure

Apply gel to the whole nail then cure

5. Clean up
The gel will create a sticky (or inhibition) layer when it's cured. Remove this with a lint-free wipe soaked in acetone or isopropyl alcohol. If you are building out the edge at all, it will most likely look like a hot mess when you remove the form, but it is SUPER easy to file into shape so don't stress. Buff the top and side walls of the nail so it is all smooth and nice, and file the edge as you would with your natural nails.
After the form and sticky later is removed
Filed up and ready to go

6. Removal
When time comes to remove the product, file off as much as you can without filing all the way to the natural nail. Get a cotton bud and soak it in pure acetone, put it on the nail then wrap it in foil. Leave for approx 10 minutes, then remove it and take a cuticle pusher and GENTLY scrape the product off the nail. If it doesn't come off easily, keep soaking until it has the texture of butter and can be easily removed.

That's it! Feel free to paint over the top with nail polish as much as you want. Try to use non-acetone remover to take off normal polish so it doesn't eat away at the gel at all.

All painted! (20/20 hindsight this could have been filed neater, but you get the point)


  1. I am really enjoying reading your well written articles. It looks like you spend a lot of effort and time on your blog. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work. artrovex gel