Gels vs acrylics – which one wins?

It’s time to get your nails done – but which manicure should you choose? 

When you’re choosing whether to get a gel or acrylic manicure, there are certain factors that you need to consider before making your choice. From lifestyle choices to how you want your nails to look, we’re examining the differences between these main manicure types so that you can determine which one will work best for you.

Read on to find out more about each process, the pros and cons of gels and acrylics and which style has the best-staying power as we delve into gels vs acrylics.

Table of contents:

Gel and acrylic nails

What are gel nails?

What are acrylic nails?

What are the differences between gels and acrylic nails?

Gels vs acrylics: which is better?

Gel and acrylic nails

For a long-lasting alternative to a standard nail polish manicure, gel polish and acrylic manicures are two of the most popular choices. Attractive, long-lasting and durable, the type you choose will be determined by the finish you’re looking for. Before examining their differences, here’s what you need to know about each type. 

pastel pink gel nails against a fair-skinned hand

What are gel nails?

There are two popular types of gel manicures: gel polish and hard gels. Gel polish is applied similarly to nail polish and cured with a UV or LED lamp. Gel extensions, hard gels or builder gels, on the other hand, are made using a thick gel to build out the nails and then cured in the same way. Here, we look at both in turn. 

Hard gels

Red, pink and patterned builder gel manicure

First introduced to the nail market in the 1980s, hard gels (sometimes referred to as builder gels) are mostly chosen by those who want to preserve the length of their natural nails, extend their nail length or add thickness or strength to their manicure. These gels cannot be soaked off with acetone and can only be removed by filing as they are cured to a non-porous finish.

Hard gels give a glossy, long-lasting finish. A bonder and a base coat are applied to a nail before the hard gel builder to build the artificial nail and a top coat, giving that final glossy finish. Polished nails are placed under a UV lamp to cure.

Soft gels 

Over time as nail technology developed, hard gel formulations were adapted and brought to the market in a weaker form, known as soft gels and gel polishes. It’s this type of gel manicure that’s most popularly favoured today. 

Soft gel polish, often called Shellac (CND’s brand name for this formula), has a more liquid consistency than hard builder gels. It comes bottled and is applied in the same way as nail polish. 

Starting with a base coat, followed by a gel polish colour and then finished with a top coat (some polishes have all three in one), each layer of a gel manicure is cured under a UV or LED lamp. This hardens the polish and extends its lifespan for a long-lasting, chip-free finish of at least two weeks.

To remove gel polish correctly, soak a cotton pad in acetone, apply it to the nail and wrap it with foil to keep it in place and allow the acetone to work. Wrap as close to the nail as possible to avoid dehydrating the skin around the nails.

What are acrylic nails?

A patterned acrylic manicure in orange and green with nail art

Popular since the 1950s, although acrylic nails don’t offer the same glossy finish as gels, they’re sturdy and fierce, making for a manicure that’s filled with character.

During application, the natural nail is filed down to create a rough surface where the glue will be placed. Then acrylic powder (polymer) and liquid (monomer) stored in two separate containers are mixed to create a mould to glue onto the nails.

This artificial nail mould is then shaped and buffed to the length and shape of choice, making the nails appear much longer. 

Unlike gels, acrylics are air-cured and begin to set once applied to the nail. Much like soft gel polish, acrylics are removed by soaking the nails in acetone. 

The great benefit of acrylics is their extreme durability – their strength means that you’re less likely to see cracks or lifts appear, usually lasting up to eight weeks. You will, however, need to book an in-fill appointment every two to three weeks, depending on your nail growth, to improve your manicure’s appearance and longevity.

What are the differences between gels and acrylics?

The first fundamental difference between both types of manicures is the curing process. As mentioned above, acrylics begin to cure during application on contact with air, whereas gel polish, be it builder or soft gels, must be cured under a UV or LED lamp. 

The second main difference from the application. Gel polish can be applied directly to the nail’s surface, whereas acrylics require the nail’s surface to be filed down for adhesion. Whilst gel is self-reliant and doesn’t require mixing before a manicure; acrylics require the monomer and polymer to be mixed before they can be applied. 

Both gel and acrylic manicures are a great way to transform your nails for stylish everyday wear, special occasions and events. Here are some of the main pros and cons of each so you can find the perfect choice to fit in with your lifestyle.

Hard or Builder Gels – pros and cons 

Gel extensions or hard builder gels, when long, offer strength and flexibility, so it’s easier to continue with day-to-day tasks. Their overall glossy finish gives them points on appearance, and they feel lighter on natural nails. 

Their application is easier to master for new nail technicians as there’s no messing around with formulas, and as opposed to air-curing acrylics, you can control when they’re cured. This is much better when adding nail designs and art, giving time to master designs. 

Lasting around 3-4 weeks, they’re a good, hard-wearing manicure which is a great choice for anyone working with chemicals or coloured dyes, as their non-porous formula makes them stain resistant. 

The main problem with gels is that they are difficult to remove because most can’t be soaked off with acetone, so they need to be filed off instead. They also expose the skin to UV light during the curing process, leading to premature ageing. To avoid this, wear sunscreen during the application or opt for manicure gloves. 

Gel polish manicure pros and cons

Much like the application of hard gels, a gel polish manicure is an easy one to master. Gel polish causes little damage to the natural nails, is easy to apply and cure, and simple to maintain with cuticle oil and moisturiser between appointments. 

No filing is required during the application; the base coat can be applied straight to the natural nail and cured under the lamp, with the polish and top coat applied similarly. 

Lasting up to three weeks, a gel polish manicure is easy to soak off with acetone and, as long as it’s applied and removed correctly, causes little damage to the natural nail.

Perfect for holidays or special occasions, although not as hard-going as hard gels or acrylics, a gel polish manicure looks much more natural and is a durable alternative to nail polish.

Similarly to hard gels, exposure to UV under the lamp can cause premature skin ageing. There’s also the chance that the polish will lift and peel more easily than the alternatives.

Fair-skinned hands with a sage manicure and white nail art

Acrylic pros and cons 

Acrylics could be a perfect choice if you’re after a long-lasting manicure that won’t chip and peel prematurely. Lasting up to eight weeks with regular in-fills, acrylics are super strong but not as flexible as gels, so they may be a bad choice if you need to do a lot with your hands.

Acrylics have been around for a long time, so although the application is more difficult than gels, it’s easy to find a skilled technician who can apply a fresh set. Achieving the correct consistency or monomer and polymer mix is key – but skilled technicians will have no problem achieving this. 

Although simpler and sometimes slightly bulkier, a good top coat can make acrylics appear just as glossy as gels. And, because they cure during the application, there’s no unnecessary exposure to UV light. 

Acrylics require the natural nail’s surface to be filed down for extra adhesion, but they can be soaked off with acetone, as opposed to hard gels that need to be filed completely. 

Although acrylic nails last longer, there is a further chance of infection to the cuticle area and nail bed due to the longevity of wear. To prevent this, always keep your nails clean and dry and use antimicrobial cuticle oil to prevent infection from spreading.

Gel nails vs acrylics: which is better

Hard gels, gel polish and acrylics all have advantages and disadvantages when choosing a manicure.

A gel polish manicure could be the best choice if you love constantly changing your nail look and aren’t bothered about extensions. 

With up to three weeks of chip-resistant coverage and an incredible selection of colours, they’re the perfect choice for holidays and special occasions and simple to soak off with acetone, leaving little to no damage to your natural nails.

And because they’re painted onto your natural nails, they’re a great choice if you’re someone that constantly uses your hands.

Gel extensions or hard gels are perfect if you want that same gel polish glossy finish, but you want longer, stronger nails. Cured in the same way as gel polish, they are more durable than soft gels but offer the flexibility you wouldn’t get from acrylics. With a longer lifespan than a gel polish manicure, they’re great for those who don’t want to visit a nail salon constantly.

As for acrylics, what they lack in shine, they certainly make up for in longevity and durability. Perfect for adding length, although long and strong, they aren’t as flexible as gels. Lasting up to eight weeks, they’re cheaper than most gel manicures and a great choice for those who like their manicures to last. Remember to book regular in-fills, though, for best results. 

Whichever manicure you opt for, always book an appointment with a trusted nail technician to avoid damage to your natural nails. 

Shop kits and accessories at Nail Polish Direct – for all of your gel and acrylic essentials

Whatever manicure you want to try out, our kits and accessories will help provide all the essentials you need to provide fabulous and flawless nails. From gel kits to UV and LED lamps to create stunning gel looks, to acrylic kits and electric nail files and drills for striking acrylics, we’ve got all the essentials for creating stunning nail looks, whatever your manicure preference. 

Related articles:

Top Nail Saving Tips For When Your Gels Grow Out

What Is The Best Type Of Nail Polish For Healthy Nails

How To Remove Gel Polish At Home

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