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What’s the Difference Between Gel Nails and Acrylics?

Know the facts before your next manicure appointment.
  • Lyz Mancini
March 25, 2024

If you’ve ever sought a manicure that lasts longer than regular nail polish, you’ve likely faced the dilemma of choosing between gel nails versus acrylic nails. Both options are a great way to try out new nail trends, like jelly nail polish and pop art French tips, but one or the other may be better for you. Of course, identifying the right manicure type isn’t always easy—especially if you don’t know how they differ.

The truth is, gel nails and acrylic nails aren’t all that different on the surface, but they do have some unique distinctions. Below, we’re breaking down the key differences, so you can decide which to ask for at your next manicure appointment.

Gel Nails: Everything You Need To Know

First things first: What is a gel manicure? This type of manicure uses a specific type of nail polish—gel 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. Getting gel nails usually involves three products: a gel base coat, the actual gel nail polish, and finally, a gel top coat.

How are gel nails applied?

Before a gel mani, you (or your nail artist) should buff and wipe down your nails with alcohol. This allows the polish to adhere better, and can help prevent lifting and peeling down the line. Once your nails are prepped, gel nail polish 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 glossy, fresh-looking nails with a long-lasting finish. Gel polish can be applied on natural nails, acrylic, and nail extensions, also known as gel extensions.

Something to keep in mind is that the UV nail lamps that cure gel nail polish emit harmful UV rays, which can damage the skin on your hands and fingers. Before your manicure, apply an even layer of SPF, like the L’Oreal Paris Bright Reveal Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Daily UV Lotion, to your hands to help protect your skin.

How long do gel nails last?

Many people love gel nail polish because it’s much more durable than traditional nail polish, and it can last for around two weeks before it needs to be removed.

Take proper care of your gelled nails to ensure their longevity. Apply a cuticle oil to your nail beds daily, don’t file them unless absolutely necessary, and wear gloves for household chores like doing dishes or repotting that plant in your living room.

Whenever you’re ready to start fresh with a new mani, read our article on How to Remove Gel Nail Polish.

Acrylic Nails: Everything You Need To Know

Acrylic is a mix of polymer and monomer. When combined, these ingredients create a gummy paste that’s then painted onto the nail with a brush. It’s primarily used to strengthen and shape the natural nail, rather than add color. Of course, that doesn’t mean acrylics are left bare—nail polish is usually painted on top to impart color. Acrylics actually allow a lot of freedom in terms of nail art. You can play with length, shape, and endless designs.

How are acrylic nails applied?

Unlike gel, which comes in a bottle much like any other nail polish, the liquid monomer and powder polymer used to create acrylic typically come in a larger bottle and a small pot, respectively. The two are then mixed in a bowl to form that aforementioned gummy paste. The paste is laid over your nail with a brush and hardens when it hits the air. This creates a protective layer over your natural nails that can be filed and shaped to your liking. Fake nail tips can also be used under acrylic to extend the length of your nail.

How long do acrylic nails last?

Acrylics tend to last 6 to 8 weeks, but they’ll definitely grow in that time. You’ll want to schedule a fill every 2 to 3 weeks, depending on your nail’s regrowth, to keep your nails looking as good as new.

How do you remove acrylics?

Whether you visit a salon and have a professional remove your acrylics or DIY the removal process at home, it’s imperative to be careful. Being hasty or taking the wrong approach can damage your natural nails. To keep them looking and feeling healthy, you want to be very gentle.

The best way to remove acrylic nails (and gel nails, for that matter), is with an acetone soak. Start by clipping off the ends of your acrylics with a nail clipper, then file and buff the tops of your nails to remove the nail polish. Next, apply cuticle oil or petroleum jelly to protect your skin during the soak.

To remove the actual acrylic, saturate a cotton ball with acetone nail polish remover and place it on top of the nail. Wrap a piece of aluminum foil around each nail, then wait for 20 minutes. Once time is up, the acrylic should be soft enough to flake right off. If it doesn’t remove easily, you want to soak your nails a little longer.

Gel Nails vs. Acrylic: What’s the Difference?

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

Appearance and finish

A gel polish manicure is polished, easy to achieve, and is a great way to look put together for any event. You can choose from a range of colors and finishes, as well as an array of nail art, although there may be some limitations depending on the natural length of your nails.

Acrylic nails are often long, but do not have a specific appearance. You can get just about any look you want. They’re often used for edgier and more head-turning looks because you can mold the acrylic paste into different shapes and styles, such as trendy coffin-shaped nails.

Health and safety

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), acrylic may weaken your natural nails. This can happen because the surface of your nails has to be filed for the acrylic to bond to it. Over time, your natural nails can become thin and damaged. Constant fills may also cause trauma to the nails, creating more damage to the nail bed.

Improper removal of both gel nail polish and acrylics can also damage your nails. This is why many people prefer to have their nails professionally removed. (Plus, it can be a time-consuming process!)


A gel manicure on natural nails can average anywhere from $30 to $70, depending on where you live and what salon you go to. Acrylic nails also typically cost somewhere between $30 to $70, with the exact amount varying based on location, desired nail length, and any additional services you get. Acrylic is often paired with gel nail polish to create an ultra-strong manicure. This addition can bring the cost up to $50 to $100.

While acrylic is often more expensive at first, it can sometimes be more cost efficient with time. Acrylics can be filled in order to make them last longer, with each fill costing $20 to $40. Gel nails, on the other hand, need to be completely redone every few weeks to maintain the look.

Which Manicure is Right For You?

Whether a gel manicure or acrylics is right for you depends on a variety of factors. If durability and dramatic length are key, acrylics are the way to go. They're tougher and can be sculpted into long, elaborate designs.

However, if you crave a more natural look and prioritize nail health, then a gel manicure might be better. Gel polish offers a high-shine finish and may be less damaging, but it can sometimes chip more easily than acrylics. Consider your lifestyle and nail goals to make the best pick.

Ultimately, you can try them both. There are few rules when it comes to beauty and expressing yourself; just have fun discovering your favorite!

How to Maintain Beautiful Skin and Nails

Here are a couple of tips to ensure your nails, hands, and skin stay just as beautiful as your gel manicure or acrylics.


Dry cuticles can take away from the polished look of your manicure. At night, apply a cuticle oil to help keep your nails and the surrounding skin nourished. You can also push your cuticles back (but don’t clip them) with an orange stick to keep them looking neat.


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 Up: How To Remove Acrylic Nails Without Damaging Your Nails

Photo Credit: IG/@learnahstarbuck_nailartist

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