Gel Nails vs. Acrylic: We Asked Manicurists to Explain the Difference

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@amyle.nails / instagram

If a long-lasting manicure sits high on your beauty wish list, there’s no better option than gel or acrylic nails. Both manicure methods can help you achieve a strong, shiny, chip-free manicure that lasts for weeks. But what's the difference between the two? Is one better than the other? To find out, we spoke with two nail experts to learn everything there is to know about gel and acrylic nails. Below, they break down the pros and cons of each.

Meet Our Expert

What Are Gel Nails?

There are several types of gel nails, but soft gel and hard gel are the most popular. Martinez says soft gel nail polish—which is brushed onto the nail like traditional nail polish—is perfect for creating shorter, natural-looking nails. She also notes that soft gel is somewhat flexible, making the nails less susceptible to damage.

Hard gel, on the other hand, has a few differing qualities. "Hard gel is used to create a structured manicure on natural nails and for adding a long set of enhancement," she adds. Since several layers are applied to sculpt the nail, it is more durable and offers a glossy, chip-free finish lasting a few weeks.

There are also gel extensions, which Pinto describes as clear gel nail tips applied on the natural nail with a special gel and filed down to the desired shape. "Après Gel-X extensions are a favorite at Vanity Projects," she adds. "They are a fast-to-apply soak-off gel tip that adheres to the natural nail and lasts up to three weeks. There is no dust, odor, glue, or damage to the natural nails, making them good for those with weak nails."

What Are Acrylic Nails?

As Pinto explains, acrylic nails are made from liquid monomers and powder polymers (we love heading to the salon, but if you want to them from home—here's how). The combination forms a paste-like substance that is built and shaped onto each nail or tip using a brush. Once the mixture dries, it leaves the nails with a strengthened surface, so you don't typically have to worry about chipping or breaking. "Acrylics are very strong and can withstand a lot," Pinto notes. However, it's worth noting that acrylic nails can damage and weaken the natural nails if improperly applied or removed.

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Gel vs. Acrylic: What’s the Difference?


Both acrylic and gel manicures require ample time to achieve. Martinez says you should allot at least 30 to 45 minutes for a basic gel polish manicure and 60 minutes to three hours for hard gel extensions or acrylic sets (depending on length and design).

She says that both manicures require the nails to be thoroughly prepped. This involves removing any existing gel polish or acrylic, shaping and buffing the nails, cleaning up the cuticles, lightly buffing the nail bed, and applying a dehydrator like V Beauty's Pure Dehydrator ($8).

With soft gel nails, the application process then involves applying a base coat, gel polish, and a top coat (each layer is cured with a UV light). Similarly, once a hard gel is applied to the nail or onto a preshaped plastic extender, it must be cured with a UV light. On the other hand, the acrylic nail paste does not require light to harden but instead does so when exposed to the air. From there, a traditional nail polish is typically applied onto an acrylic nail, and you must wait for it to dry.


Acrylic nails tend to look thicker and bulkier than gel nails, especially if they are not properly filed and shaped. "However, a well-done acrylic can look close to natural nails," Pinto says. "Of course, the nails will be slightly thicker than a natural nail because of the layers of monomer and powder polymer on top of the natural nails." According to Martinez, gel nails can look slightly more natural than acrylic nails, especially when the length is shorter. However, gel nails can also appear lumpy if the gel is not brushed on evenly.


Both gel polish and acrylic manicures require maintenance to camouflage nail regrowth. However, the time between appointments can vary, depending on your manicure type. "Clients with natural nail gel manicures come in every two weeks, and some acrylic [or gel extension] clients can go as long as [three] weeks before they need a fill."


To remove a gel manicure properly, Martinez says a fine grit five-in-one drill or torpedo nail bit helps break the seal on the nails, removing any shine and bulk. "Then, your manicurist will place a cotton ball saturated in 100% pure acetone on each nail before wrapping them in aluminum foil and letting them sit for 15 to 20 minutes," she adds. After removing the nail wraps, a metal pusher or orange wood stick lifts off any remaining gel.

Acrylic nails follow a similar removal process, but instead of wrapping the nails in acetone-soaked cotton balls and foil, they are usually soaked in a bowl of pure acetone for 20 to 30 minutes. Afterward, Martinez says a metal pusher or orange wood stick gently removes the softened acrylic from the nail plate. Then, the nails are filed and shaped.


Every salon charges differently, depending on location, the nail technician's experience level, and the manicure's complexity. Our experts say you can expect to pay $65 or more for acrylic nail sets. Gel manicures without extensions range in price, with basic soft gel manicures starting at about $35. Manicures with gel extensions can cost upwards of $100. Adding nail art and accessories can further increase the price of a gel or acrylic manicure.

How to Pick the Right One for You

When choosing between a gel or acrylic manicure, consider your lifestyle, the current health of your nails, and your budget. "If you are heavy-handed throughout the day, acrylics are probably best," Pinto says. "For someone who wants strong nails with enhancements and has a particular shape or depth preference, hard gel is a good option, whereas gel extensions are ideal for someone looking to grow their nails yet frequently changes their manicure." And if you want a low-maintenance, quick option, Martinez suggests a simple soft gel polish.

The Final Takeaway

When it comes to gel and acrylic manicures, our experts say one isn't absolutely better than the other. It all comes down to preferences. With gel nails, there are many ways to achieve your desired look, as you can opt for soft gel, hard gel, or gel extensions, whereas there's only one way to create acrylic nails. Overall, the biggest differentiators come down to cost (acrylic tends to be cheaper than gel extensions) and time (gel manis are often a quicker service and dry in seconds, thanks to UV lamps). "Ultimately, if your nail structure is healthy and your nail tech is educated, trust they will recommend the proper manicure for your needs," Martinez says.

Up Next: Shellac and Acrylic Are Both Buzzy Nail Treatments—Here's How to Pick The Best One For You

Read the original article on Byrdie.