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How to Make Homemade Nail Polish Remover
By Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.
Updated May 23, 2019
Perhaps your polish is chipped and awful. Maybe you messed up one nail and need to re-do it. Maybe that new color you tried is making you crazy. Whatever the reason, you need to take off your polish, but you're out of nail polish remover. Don't panic! There are several ways to remove polish without using nail polish remover.
Here's a collection of common home chemicals and non-chemical methods to try. Whether you want to make a homemade nail polish remover that's safer than the stuff you can buy or you're simply desperate for a way to fix your scary manicure, help is here.
One of the easiest ways to remove nail polish is to use another polish. This works because nail polish contains a solvent which keeps the product liquid and then evaporates to help it dry to a smooth, hard finish. The same solvent will dissolve dried polish. While you can use any polish (yes, there is a use for the colors you hate), you'll see the best results with a clear top coat or a clear polish. This is because these products contain more solvent and less pigment.
What You Do
1. Paint your nails with a top coat or polish.
2. While it's still wet, wipe it off with a cloth or cotton round. A cloth works best because it won't leave fuzzies on your hands.
3. You may need to re-apply more polish to completely remove the old product.
4. You may have a small amount of remaining polish near your cuticle and the edges of your nail. Soak your hands in hot, soapy water for a few minutes to loosen the residue and then rub it off with a cloth.
While using a top coat or another polish is the method that works best to remove old nail polish, there are several more options.
Perfume is an effective nail polish remover because it contains solvents that dissolve polish. Some perfumes contain acetone, while others contain alcohol. Either way, it will break up the bonds holding the polish together. Pick a perfume you don't particularly like, since it's a waste to ruin perfectly good perfume when there are other ways to remove nail polish.
What To Do
1. Moisten a cotton swab, cotton ball, or cloth with the perfume.
2. Use it like nail polish remover.
3. Depending on the composition of the perfume, it may work as well as regular polish remover or you may need to reapply it to get all the old color off.
4. You may want to wash your hands with soap and water so you don't overpower yourself and others with the odor.
Hairspray works as an emergency nail polish remover. I say "emergency" because the process can be sticky and unpleasant. You can either spray your nails and wipe the polish off or collect the spray in a bowl so you aren't coating your hands with hairspray. However you decide to capture the hairspray, work on one nail at a time and wipe the hairspray off before it gets a chance to dry. You'll want to use warm, soapy water to remove any sticky residue when you're done.
Alcohol is a good solvent to loosen nail polish so you can remove it. There are two main types of alcohol that work: isopropyl or rubbing alcohol and ethyl or grain alcohol. Methanol is another type of alcohol which would remove nail polish, but it's toxic and absorbed through your skin.
The best products to try are rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer. Of these, rubbing alcohol is the better choice because it contains less water. Alcohol is a good solvent, but it's not going to clean your nails as easily as acetone or toluene, so it's best to make sure your nails are thoroughly soaked with alcohol and then rub the polish off.
Depending on your access to chemicals and level of desperation to remove your nail polish, there may be other chemicals you can try. The three listed here have been used in commercial nail polish removers, but they have been phased out because they are toxic. So, if you use them, only apply the minimum amount needed to remove the polish and then wash your hands (or feet) with warm, soapy water immediately after.
Acetone (still found in some nail polish removers and sold in hardware stores)
Toluene (used to be in nail products)
Recipes for homemade nail polish removers are mentioned online, such as mixing equal parts of vinegar and lemon or using toothpaste. It's possible the acidity in the vinegar and lemon might help loosen polish, but I wouldn't hold out any great expectations of success. Maybe there is a special toothpaste out there that removes nail polish (pumice applied with a Dremel tool?), but the Colgate and Crest in my bathroom don't have any effect on my manicure.
You can also file off old polish, but it's time-consuming and you'll lose the top layer of nail along with it. Try another method before resorting to that.
Another method which would work, but I strongly caution against, is igniting the polish. Yes, nitrocellulose in nail polish (and ping pong balls) is flammable, but you'll burn the top layer of keratin off your nails along with the old color. You could also burn yourself. If your manicure is that horrible, wear gloves to the store and buy actual remover.