beauty trends What’s the Difference Between Gel Nails and Acrylic Nails?

Know the facts before your next manicure appointment.

May 02, 2022
Gel Nails Vs Acrylic Nails

If you’ve ever sought a manicure that lasts longer than regular nail polish, you’ve likely been faced with the gel nails vs. acrylic nails debate. While both of these options are a great way to try out various nail trends, locking down the right style and technique for you is easier said than done. 


With risks of chipped nail polish, broken nails and more, making the right selection is key for ensuring your nails go the distance. Below, we’re breaking down the differences between gel and acrylic nails, so you know what to ask for at your next manicure appointment.


What Are Gel Nails? 

Before we get deep into the gel nails vs. acrylic nails discussion, let’s recap the basics of what you get with each. Gel nails are made through a three-step process, which consists of brushing a base coat, nail polish, and top coat over your natural nails. 


With each coat, 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 won’t smudge like traditional nail polish. The final result is nails that sport a glossy finish and freshly manicured look. You can use gel polish on your natural nails or on nail extensions, also called tips.


What Are Acrylic Nails? 

Acrylic nails are made of a combination of liquid and powder that’s laid over your nail with a brush. Once the mixture is applied, your nails are filed and shaped to emulate the look of natural nails. 


After your acrylic nails are shaped, each nail is typically painted with a regular base coat, nail polish color, and finished with a top coat. Nails are then set under a fan to dry. Acrylic can also be applied to tips or to your natural nails, though they can weaken your nails with prolonged use. 


Editor’s tip: You can actually mix the two styles and get gel polish cured over your acrylic nails for the ultimate manicure that has strength and long wear.


What’s The Difference Between Gel And Acrylic Nails? 

Although gel and acrylic nails can provide similar results, there are key differences with each nail style. As we mentioned, gel nails typically consist of brushing coats of polish on your natural nails and are cured with a UV lamp. The process is much faster than applying acrylic, especially because drying is instant, and the nails often look more natural. These days you can find online kits that let you get gel nails right at home. Once complete, gel nails will usually last for around 14 days without chipping. Toward the end of this period, they may start to peel or lift at the corners. 


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 is easily able to be removed. While gel nails can be prone to peeling, they are known to be more flexible than acrylic nails, although be warned that both styles run the risk of damaging your natural nails with continuous wear.


On the flip side, acrylic nails provide a hard, protective layer due to the powder and liquid hybrid mixture they're created with. Since acrylic nails are durable, you typically don’t have to worry about your nails cracking, breaking, or lifting while you have the acrylics (you may even notice that your natural nails grow longer and faster with acrylics). 


However, they’re not foolproof and if you do lot’s of work with your hands (think typing, washing dishes, working out with weights) there is the potential for them to break. Acrylic nails can also look bulky if your tech doesn’t take the time to smooth them down to look more natural. If you’re using regular nail polish over acrylic, drying time can take a while, so you may want to tune into your favorite podcast while you sit in the salon and wait. These nails are also challenging to remove without damaging your nail beds. 


To keep your acrylic set intact, you’ll have to refill your nails every few weeks. And once you remove acrylic nails, you’re often left with nails that are long but weak. You’ll have to wait for the damaged nails to grow out to get your nails back in shape. 


Typically, acrylic nails are removed in the salon by a nail technician, whereas gel nails can be removed at home with ease. If you try to remove either without taking proper steps, you can be left with broken and brittle claws. So if you’re wondering, which is worse for you nails between gel and acrylic, they both have the potential to damage your nails if worn continuously or removed improperly, and they both can look stunning when done well.


Next: 15 Fun Nail Designs For Almond-Shaped Nails


Updated by: Shalwah Evans, Photo Credit: Crystal Simone