After fiddling around with better base and top coats (Orly Bonder base coat and Seche Vite top coat gave me fast drying, high shine results that lasted 2-3 days without chips, which was better, but still a far cry from gel), I started looking into DIY gel options. My first try was with the "sounds too good to be true" Nutra Nail Gel Perfect UV free system. Waste not your money on this stuff, ladies. If anything, this polish was more brittle and chipped faster than regular polish for me. I had massive chips within an hour or two. It was also approximately 3 1/2 bitches to remove fully.
I then tried one more "gel like" "lamp free" option, Revlon's Colorstay polish. The first time I tried this stuff I did so using Bonder and Seche (see above links) and it peeled off in sheets within a day. I gave it another try alone, no base or top coat and that mani did last about a week with major tip wear, but no actual chipping. The shine left a lot to be desired, but might be improved by use of Colorstay's base and top coats in conjunction with polish. I wouldn't write this stuff off, if you have "good" nails and your polish generally lasts a week or so. It is not, however, a substitue for real gel. And by this point, after experimenting for a few months with alterntiaves, I was jonesing for the hard stuff again.
I came to the realization that I was going to have to buy a lamp. Now, most UV lamps contained in drugstore kits are not big enough to fit a whole hand in, so you end up DOUBLING your UV curing time doing 4 nails, then a thumb, 4 nails, then a thumb . . . multiply that by a base layer, 2-3 layers of color, a top coat . . . and your at home mani is going to take two full episodes of Mad Men.
I ended up going with a 36W UV bulb lamp from Amazon, which is very similar to the ones my salon uses. The price was right and it has been serving me well for a year with one catch: the bulbs are harder to find than a needle in a haystack. I had one burn out and have twice ordered replacements from various Amazon sellers, none of which have worked. I still haven't figured the bulbs out, to be honest, but I'm using my lamp effectively with just 3 bulbs for now and will likely either buy a new lamp or invest in a more expensive, but bulb free, LED lamp when my current lamp craps out completely.
When you first get started, you'll need either a kit which includes all of the basic top and base products or, just a bottle each of base coat, top coat, ph bonder and regular drugstore rubbing alcohol. Gelish and Red Carpet Manicure both make kits which I can vouch for. You're going to want to stick with well known brands for your basics. Gelish and Red Carpet are both great. Once I tried to save a few bucks and tried IBD Gel's top and base and my polish peeled off whole within 48 hours. Buyer beware! There are lots of inexpensive gel polish brands out there, and predominately I've found that bargain color polishes work fine with Gelish or Red Carpet basics, but you MUST have decent basic products in order to get results that will merit your money and time investement.
I realize this is starting to sound complicated, but I promise once you get all of your products, DIY gel is easy as pie.
Now, colors! I have had good results with Gelish, Sensationail, and IBD (although again, DO NOT buy their base and top coats!). I'm mixed on Red Carpet colors because I have a black that is all but unusable and a red that is ok. If you're going for a dark, opaque color, I think you are "safest" choosing from Gelish's range.
Now, I'm sure at this point you're thinking "I just spent $50 on all the things BESIDES colors, can't I just use one of my zillion regular nail polishes with gel base and top coats?" The answer to which would be, sorta. Gel top coat cured in a UV lamp over regular polish (no gel base required) will last about a week chip free for me. There are two catches: 1) The regular polish must be BONE DRY before the gel topcoat goes on or the color polish underneath the cured gel will pucker (Use of Seche Vite before a gel topcoat can usually accomplish full drying if you wait 30-45 minutes before applying the gel. Yep. Two topcoats. I warned you there were catches!) . . . and . . . 2) Gel topcoat over regular polish is 9zillion times harder to remove than gel topcoat over gel polish. Gel tends to come off in chunks, gel on top of regular polish does not. There is much scraping and buffing and gnashing of teeth . . . to the point where regular polish + gel topcoat *basically* isn't worth doing.
So! You've got your lamp, your basics, your gel polish. The process is pretty simple. Clean your nails with alcohol using a paper towel (cotton leaves lint that gets cured in the gel and will piss you off for the duration of your manicure). Use PH bonder (liquid that you paint on each nail, no curing afterwards). A coat of base, cure for 2 minutes. 2-3 coats of color, curing for 2 minutes after each coat. A coat of top coat, cure for 2 mins. Wipe nails off with alcohol on a paper towel. DONEZO. Since I know you're doing math in your head right now, you probably have already figured out that we're talking 16-20 minutes of curing time, depending on whether you do 2 or 3 coats of polish. However, with practice you can do a full set of 10 nails in 30 minutes or so and your nails will be done, fully dry, rock hard at the end of that time.
My salon gel manicures have been known to last 3 weeks. My at home manis last one to two. So there IS a bit of compromise on the durability end of things, but again, I'm not spending $45 a pop and I can do my nails in my pjs while drinking beer and watching TV, so . . . .
And now you know!