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Gel vs. Acrylic: Which Manicure Is Best for You?

Know the facts before your next manicure appointment.
May 17, 2023


If you’ve ever sought a manicure that lasts longer than regular nail polish, you’ve likely been faced with the gel nails versus acrylic nails dilemma. While both of these options are a great way to try out various nail trends, like jelly nail polish and pop art French tips, identifying the right manicure service isn’t always easy. 


With risks of chipped nail polish, broken tips and damaged nails, making the right selection is key for ensuring your manicure can last. And while gel nails and acrylic nails aren’t all that different on the surface, they do have some unique distinctions that can make one or the other a better option based on what you’re looking to achieve. Below, we’re breaking down the key differences between gel and acrylic nails, so you know exactly what to ask for at your next manicure appointment.

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What Are Gel Nails? 

Gel nails refer to a type of nail polish that is cured with a UV nail lamp to create a shiny, long-lasting manicure that doesn’t require extensive time to dry. Gel nail polish usually follows a three-step process, which consists of a base coat, gel nail polish and finally, top coat. Many love gel nail polish because it’s much more durable than traditional nail polish and it lasts around two weeks before it needs to be removed and a new coat of polish can be applied.
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How Are Gel Nails Applied?

Gel nail polish comes in a bottle and is applied just like traditional nail polish. With each coat of polish, the nail is placed under a UV light for somewhere between 30 seconds and two minutes to cure (dry). Once cured, the layer of gel polish hardens and is immediately dry so you don’t have to worry about smudging as you do with traditional nail polish. 


The final result is a glossy, fresh-looking manicure with a long-lasting finish. Gel polish can be applied on natural nails, acrylic and nail extensions, also known as gel extensions.


Editor’s tip: The UV nail lamp that cures gel nail polish emits harmful UV rays that can damage the skin on your hands and fingers. Before your nails get painted, apply an even layer of SPF, like the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Invisible UV Fluid to keep them protected.


What Are Acrylic Nails? 

Acrylic is a mix of polymer and monomer which creates a gummy paste that’s painted onto the nail with a brush. It’s primarily used to strengthen and shape the natural nail and nail polish is painted on top of it to add color. This is a big contrast from gel nail polish which is used to add long-lasting, shiny color to the nails. 

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How Is Acrylic Applied?

Unlike gel nail polish that comes in a bottle, acrylic is a combination of liquid monomer and powder polymer that is mixed (typically in a bowl) to create a gummy paste. This paste is laid over your nail with a brush and hardens when it hits the air to create a protective layer over your natural nails that can be filed and shaped. Fake nail tips can also be used under acrylic to extend the length of your nail.


What’s the Difference Between Gel and Acrylic Nails? 

Although gel and acrylic nails are two of the most popular salon nail services, there are some key differences that separate each nail style. 


Application

As we mentioned, gel nail polish is brushed on your natural nail, acrylic or nail extension and is cured with a UV light. The process is much faster than applying acrylic because you’re not shaping the nail and the dry time takes a minute or less. Gel nail polish is a service that can be perfected with little practice and because of this, many choose to do their own gel manicures at home. 


On the flip side, acrylic nails provide a hard, protective layer due to the powder and liquid mixture they're created with. Acrylic needs to be filed down with proper technique because your nails can look bulky if your tech doesn’t take the time to smooth and shape them. Once they’re shaped, you can use traditional nail polish or gel nail polish to add color. Many like gel because it adds an extra layer of durability to your manicure. 


Another thing about acrylic is that its polymer and monomer chemical concoction creates harsh fumes. You don’t want to breathe these chemicals in so it’s important to get your acrylics done somewhere with proper ventilation. Acrylic also requires more sculpting and shaping than gel nail polish which makes it more difficult to master. While it can be done at home, there’s a learning curve and it’s not as DIY-friendly as gel nail polish is.


Removal

Typically, acrylic nails are removed in the salon by a nail technician, whereas gel nails can be removed at home with ease. When you’re ready to remove gel nails, all you need to do is soak them off and you’re good to go. Typically, a cotton ball soaked in acetone is placed over the nail, then each nail is wrapped in aluminum foil. After 10 minutes, the gel polish can easily scrape off and you’re ready for a new manicure.


Like gel nail polish, acrylic nails are removed with acetone, cotton and foil but the process is a bit more lengthy. If you don’t want to damage your natural nails, the way you remove your gel or acrylic nails is extremely important. You never want to tug, pull or peel off the gel polish or acrylic.


Durability

Gel nail polish typically lasts around two weeks without chipping, though, the polish may start to peel or lift at the corners as you get closer to the 14-day mark. It’s stronger than regular nail polish but not as strong as acrylic because it sits on your natural nails. So, whatever state your natural nails are in will affect how strong your gel nail polish is. While gel polish is harder to chip, it’s still possible to break a nail when you have it on if your natural nails are weakened or if you do lots of work with your hands. 


Acrylic nails can last upwards of three weeks and be filled a couple of times before an entirely new set is needed. Since acrylic nails are durable, you typically don’t have to worry too much about your nails cracking, breaking, or lifting while you have them. But, know that if you do lots of work with your hands (think typing, washing dishes, working out with weights) there is the potential for them to break which can seriously damage your natural nails.


Editor’s tip: If you’re on the hunt for gel nail polish that can strengthen your natural nails, try hard gel or builder gel in a bottle (BIAB).

 

Cost

Gel nail polish on natural nails can cost anywhere from $30 to $70 depending on where you live and what salon you go to. Acrylic nails can cost anywhere from $30 to $100 or more depending on where you live, what length you get and what other services you pair them with. Acrylic is often paired with gel nail polish to create an ultra-strong manicure that ranges anywhere from $50 to $100 or more depending on if you add faux nail tips or some trendy nail art.


While acrylic can be more expensive in the initial visit, it can be filled whereas gel polish on natural nails cannot. An acrylic fill focuses on the regrowth at the base of the nail and your nail tech will fill this area with new acrylic, hence the name fill. This means you don’t have to pay for a new set every time you get your acrylic nails done. 


Are Gel or Acrylic Nails Better for You?

In terms of what is better, it really depends on what you’re looking for because gel adds lasting color while acrylic adds strength. Both techniques have their benefits and both have their drawbacks. If you want to strengthen your natural nails, acrylic is the better option but it also has the potential to be more damaging than gel and can really weaken your nails. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), states that acrylic weakens your natural nails because the surface has to be filed for the acrylic to bond to it. Because of this, the natural nails become thin and damaged. Constant fills also cause trauma to the nails, creating more damage to the nail bed.


If you want to wear a manicure that you don’t have to worry about chipping, gel nail polish is the better choice. But, gel nail polish can also weaken your natural nails when it’s not removed correctly. If you decide to peel your gel nail polish off instead of soaking it off properly, this can lead to thin, peeling and brittle nails.


If you’re looking to add length and long-lasting color to your nails without all the damage, there’s actually a third option which is the all-around better choice known as gel extensions. Think of gel extensions as a combination of acrylic and gel nail polish. With gel extensions, a clear nail extension (sort of like a press-on nail) is applied to your entire nail and sealed with builder gel, which is like a stronger version of clear top coat. It’s as strong as acrylic and it’s more flexible which helps it to be more durable.


Gel nail polish is applied over the nail extension, just as if it were your natural nails, to sport whatever color or nail design you’re after. Acrylic is damaging to the nails, especially when you’re constantly getting fills and its chemical makeup can irritate the skin. It also creates harsh fumes that are harmful to breathe in. Gel extensions don’t have those chemicals and harsh fumes and when they’re properly soaked off with acetone, they can help your natural nails grow strong and healthy.   


How Can I Make My Gel or Acrylic Manicure Last Longer?

Regardless of what nail service you decide on, here are some tips that can help to make any manicure last longer.


1. Apply Cuticle Oil

Dry cuticles affect the health and appearance of your nails and when you’re indulging in manicure services that have the potential to be damaging, it’s ultra-important to take good care of them. At night, apply oil or petroleum jelly to your cuticles and massage it into the skin. This helps to make your manicure last longer and stimulates nail growth. Remember, healthy cuticles yield healthy nails so you don’t want to neglect them. 


2. Wear Gloves When Cleaning

To prevent chipping, wear gloves when you’re doing the dishes or cleaning. This will help to protect your nails from breaking and it also ensures your hands and cuticles won’t dry out from harsh dish soap or household cleaning products.


Next: 22 Trendy Summer Nail Designs You’ll Want to Bookmark, Stat


Photo Credit: iStock

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