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What’s the Difference Between Acrylic and Gel Nails? Here’s Everything You Need To Know

Photo by Dariia Chernenko/Getty Images

One thing most of us mani lovers crave? Besides keeping up with the latest trends in nail art, it’s flaunting beautiful nails that last for the long haul. Nothing takes a fresh mani from stunning to so-so than a premature chip only a few days in. Luckily, the beauty industry listened to our nail polish prayers and answered them with long-lasting formulas like gel polish, acrylics, and dip powders that require basically zero drying time and cling onto your nail bed like a coat of armor. So what’s the real difference between a gel manicure and acrylic nails? With the endless nail options out there, the lines can get a little blurry when it comes to achieving chip-free polish perfection. And in the quest for a manicure that won’t break or budge, is one truly better than the other? We talked to nail expert (and total nail art pro), Shani Evans for the inside scoop. Here’s what you need to know. 

Want a visual on how to remove your gel polish safely? Check out this video:

About the Expert:
Shani Evans is a nail technician based in New York City.

Let’s Talk Acrylic Nails

What They’re Made Of

Acrylics are typically made up of two parts——a powder polymer and liquid monomer that are mixed together to form a bead-like ball of putty that is molded onto your nails and hardens when exposed to air. Acrylic nails are made up of a type of acrylic called methyl methacrylates, the same stuff that some dental products are manufactured with. Unlike gel nail polish, no UV light is needed for acrylics to harden into a long-lasting finish. 

The Process

Applying acrylic nails can have you parked at the nail salon for some time, but the results are 100 percent worth it. After prepping your nails, your nail artist will lay your acrylic over your natural nail or nail extension (if you crave long nails) with a brush, and shape your nails to your liking. Once the acrylic is hardened, the process is finished up with a base coat, nail polish, nail art (gotta have it!), and topcoat.

The Strength

Kind of like a tortoiseshell for your nails, acrylic creates a strong coating over your natural nail that’s incredibly long-lasting (we’re talking up to six weeks or more). “It’s hard, incredibly durable, and new growth can be filled in repeatedly,” says Evans, who adds that acrylics are especially great for “tips and other enhancements like custom nails sculpted over a form.” So if you’re looking for long, customized, uniquely shaped nails to add to the length of your own nails, or refresh your mani with a quick fill-in, acrylic may be the one.

The Removal

What’s also important to note with acrylics is the method of removing them. These babies can come off with a long soak in acetone, but pros don’t recommend it. According to Evans, “Acrylics should be removed by a professional, usually with an electric file (‘e-fil’ or ‘drill’).” Why a pro? Because being too rough with the removal of acrylic nails with an e-file can cause serious damage to your natural nails. “You can see over-filing when an acrylic set is removed completely and a ‘ring of fire’ is left behind, marking where the new growth starts. It’s a myth that acrylic is ‘bad’ for the nails though; it’s usually the rough prep and removal that is damaging. Acrylic is amazing in the hands of an artist who also prioritizes the health and strength of their clients’ natural nails,” says Evans.

Let’s Talk Gel Nails

What They’re Made Of

In a nutshell, gel nail polish is made up of molecules that bind together and cure to a hard, glossy finish under UV light. Because of the curing process, gel polish can last for several weeks if well taken care of and can resist wear and tear that regular nail polish can’t tolerate. Since it’s softer than acrylic, gel nail polish also allows for more natural bending and flexibility of the nail. While some gel polish devotees are fans of the “softer” feel, its bendability can lead to chips a bit quicker than acrylics. However, gel manis are known for their serious gloss appeal. “Soft gel is strong, but easier to remove, generally, and is shiny, shiny, shiny,” adds Evans. Even better, they make an amazing canvas for nail art. “Gel is perfect for nail art, either by itself or layered on top of acrylic. It's also great for natural nails without extensions,” says Evans. 

The Process

A gel manicure typically consists of three steps. After your nails are prepped, your nail tech will apply a base coat, polish coat (don’t forget the funky nail art), and topcoat. Then, they’ll have you place your fingers under a UV light in between each layer for 30 to 60 seconds in order to harden or “cure” your polish. 

The Strength

“Like acrylic, gel lasts for weeks, but it also acts as a protective coating if you’re trying to grow your nails out,” Evans tells us. A typical gel manicure will last two-to-three weeks (or longer) and can help keep brittle nails from breaking by acting as an added layer of protection. The trick to ensuring your gel polish lasts? Don’t fidget in your chair and leave your nail under the UV light for the recommended amount of time. And, avoid exposing your polish to very hot water (like super hot baths), which can cause your polish to lift off prematurely. 

The Removal 

“Gel is gentle, durable, and can be removed at home by hand in about 15 minutes with a 180-grit file and acetone-soaked cotton balls wrapped in foil,” Evans explains. Unlike acrylics, it’s easier to remove gel polish with acetone because it’s softer, making it safer to remove on your own. A good gel manicure should come off easily with acetone. The key to removing your gel polish while preserving the health of your nails is to avoid picking, scrubbing, and scraping (we know it can be tempting), or opt to book a sesh with your manicurist and leave it to the pros. 

So What’s The Difference Between Acrylic and Gel? Here’s The Breakdown:

1. Acrylic is a mixture of powder and liquid while gel polish already comes in liquid form.

2. Acrylic hardens when exposed to air while gel polish hardens under UV light. 

Tip: Coat your hands in SPF (except your nails) before your nail appointment to protect sensitive skin from exposure.

3. Acrylic nails can last several weeks if you fill them in while gel polish typically lasts two-to-three weeks.

4. Acrylics require longer acetone soaks and e-filing to remove. Gel polish comes off easily with a gentle file and acetone.

5. Acrylics can take longer to apply because of the shaping and filing of the acrylic. Get polish is applied after shaping and filing the nail to its desired shape.

Want to extend the life of your manicure regardless of whether you’re rocking acrylic or gel?

Here are Evans’ “Four Commandments For Any Nails.”

1. Apply cuticle oil twice a day—we love ESSIE Apricot Cuticle Oil—once in the morning when you brush your teeth and once in the evening when you wash your face. Always. Healthy cuticles = healthy nails. It stimulates nail growth, prevents lifting at the base, helps curtail the compulsion to bite or pick, and keeps your skin from looking dry or ash.

2. Wear old-school rubber gloves when washing dishes or cleaning the crib.

3. Avoid submerging your hands in water for extended periods of time.  See commandment number two.

4. Do not use your nails as tools (pretend you’re reading that in capital letters). Grab a letter opener or tweezers or any tools aestheticians use. Anything but your gorgeous nails.

Want to keep up with the latest nail trends? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started. Already an Ipster? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter @IPSY.

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About the author
Runa Rhattacharya
Runa Bhattacharya
Runa is an NYC-based writer and Registered Nurse with over 8 years of experience covering beauty and wellness. She’s worked for publications like SELF, Cosmopolitan, and more. She’s passionate about beauty, science, and two careers that she loves!
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Article Last Updated April 21, 2022 12:00 AM