The Ultimate Guide to Hard Gel Nails

I first stumbled across hard gel manicures when I was in Italy last September for a friend’s wedding. Mere hours before, my gel manicure had reached a peeling point and I’d indulged the urge to polish pick, leaving a mottled mess on my hands. 

Looking for a fix, I scrambled to a sundry store and snatched anything I could get my hands on—nail files, press-ons, and a small silver pot of nail adhesive. 

I returned to my hotel room and within moments of unscrewing the small pot, I was dumbfounded. The stuff was far from the adhesive I’d expected. It wasn’t gel polish, either. In fact, it resembled nothing I’d known.

It turns out the resiny, saplike goo-pot was hard gel, a.k.a. builder gel, which is a thick, glossy manicure medium with myriad uses. Most commonly, it’s used to add length, as it’s “strong enough to create nail extensions,” notes Kelly Dobos, a cosmetic chemist based in Ohio. Similar to acrylic, hard gel can be sculpted into any nail shape, and will transform even the shortest nails into Pinterest-worthy talons

What is hard gel?

If you have yet to try hard gel, or even understand its capabilities, you’re in for a treat. Below, your ultimate guide to hard gel—including how it differs from gel polish, the ways it can be used, and application tips straight from nail pros. 

“Hard gel is a fantastic invention,” says Suzie, a seasoned  nail technician and founder of Nail Career Education, a YouTube channel with 2.5 million subscribers. “In my opinion, it is second to acrylic,” she continues, “only because acrylic is just a little bit stronger.”

Hard gel is used to extend the nail “99 percent of the time,” Suzie says. Less frequently, it’s used for a nonextension technique referred to as a gel overlay. Overlays deliver a hard, protective coating over the natural nail “to protect or cover the nail and make it feel harder.”

How do you apply hard gel?

According to Vicki Ornellas, an international nail trainer and stylist, hard gel is typically sold in small pots and requires a special densely packed brush to apply. To transform from its wet, saplike state, “hard gel needs to be cured,” Ornellas says. Curing is pro-speak for the process whereby UV or LED light, emitted from a nail lamp, “sets” a mani into its final, hardened state. Hard gel does not air-dry. 

Hard gel has a few different names.

Shopping for hard gel as a newbie can prove downright befuddling. Terms like builder gel, structure gel, and sculpting gel cropped up in my searches, leaving me with more questions than products in my virtual shopping cart. 

To save you confusion: hard gel, builder gel, and sculpting gel are one and the same—synonyms! For context: Consider the many monikers of traditional nail polish—lacquer, varnish, and enamel, to name a few. 

Now to add a sprinkle of confusion back into the mix: Hard gel differs from hybrid gel. Also dubbed polygel or gum gel, hybrid gel looks, and even acts, a bit like hard gel. The formula, typically housed in a squeeze tube, is thick but is more pastelike than resiny, and is strong enough to create nail extensions too. One advantage hybrid gel holds over hard gel is its relative ease of use; whereas hard gel can be runny, hybrid gel remains in place until it’s intentionally moved. While this can make application easier, hybrid gel cannot self-level as a result, whereas hard gel can.  

How does hard gel differ from soft gel?

What most people colloquially refer to as a “gel manicure” involves gel polish, also known as soft gel or soak-off gel. Not to be confused with hard gel, gel polish has been popular since the ’90s, when it was introduced as a chip-free, color-depositing alternative to traditional nail polish. “It’s accomplishments were, and still are, to keep colour on longer than nail polish,” Suzie says. 

While gel polish is fantastic in its own right, it lacks the rigidity of a hard gel—rigidity that’s necessary for lengthening and sculpting nail extensions. According to Ornellas, “Hard gels are used for strength and structure,” whereas “gel polish is just for color and art, and a little strength."

Though hard gel and gel polish serve decidedly different purposes, they can complement each other beautifully. Many pros paint gel polish atop a structural hard-gel base to add color. Unlike gel polish, which comes in every color imaginable, hard gel is often limited to neutrals like white, clear, and pink. 

Once applied, both hard gel and gel polish require time under a nail lamp. Nail lamps emit UV or LED light, which transforms gooey liquids into shiny solids. According to Dobos, the light spurs “a chemical reaction called polymerization.” During the polymerization process, “small molecules, monomers, or oligomers join together to form long chains or three-dimensional networks.” 

Within these 3D networks, the molecular chains link in specific formations. “How and where they link is determined by the types of molecules that are mixed together,” Dobos says. “The greater the number of links between chains in the three-dimensional networks, the more solid the resulting polymer will be.” 

The polymers that make up hard gel are tighter than those in gel polish, which explains the relative strength of each product. The tightly woven polymer structure comprising hard gel also makes it impervious to staining. Gel polish, on the other hand, is more porous, which explains why bright whites and light pinks tend to look grubby with wear. 

What are hard gel extensions?

According to Ornellas, hard gel extensions are created in one of two ways: with nail tips or nail forms. Nail tips are preshaped plastic extenders that can function as bones, so to speak, for a svelte mani look. Once the natural nail has been prepped, tips are glued to the top edge, a.k.a. the free edge, and are clipped to the desired length. Once secure, tips can be layered with hard gel (or other structural product, like dip powder).

Many professionals, however, skip nail tips entirely, instead opting for more of a freehand approach to building hard gel extensions. To do so requires a nail form—a semi-rigid paper guide, placed just below the free edge of the nail. Once placed, the nail form acts as a temporary canvas on which to glide hard gel to a desired length and shape.

Whether with tips or forms, creating hard gel extensions requires technique—technique that takes years of practice. I have by no means mastered a hard gel mani at home, but I have improved significantly after a year of practice.

If you are keen on the DIY hard gel route, watch educational videos prior to trying your hand, Ornellas advises. Luckily, YouTube is brimming with hard gel how-tos. I’m partial to Nail Career Education, which has taught me everything I know about nail extensions.

How do you remove hard gel?

Unlike gel polish, which requires reapplication every two weeks, hard gel can last literal months on the nail. That said, there are contingencies—and maintenance. Hard gel remains exactly where it’s cured; natural nails, however, grow. When your natural nail grows, hard gel moves up with it. As nails grow longer, this creates a gap between the cuticle and the hard gel. Once it’s reached a visible state of grow-out, a hard gel manicure requires maintenance. Specifically, a nail fill, says Ornellas, which entails literally filling in the grown-out area with more hard gel. This recreates a seamless, gap-free mani that looks freshly done. 

In addition to its aesthetic value, a fill also restores physical balance to the nail, which can otherwise become increasingly top heavy. Without balance, hard gel extensions can become structurally unsound, which puts them at risk of snapping off. The same is true for acrylics, hybrid gel extensions, and others. “How long nails last is more about the technique on which it was built rather than the product itself,” Suzie says. A fill restores the supportive structure on which the nail was initially built.

As an alternative to fills, a hard gel mani can be removed entirely. Fair warning though: It’s a labor-intensive process. Unlike gel polish, hard gel resists the removal capabilities of acetone. The reason lies in those tightly woven molecular networks we’ve explored, above. While they’re to thank for hard gel’s durability, the tradeoff is that typical solvent-based removers “cannot penetrate the tightly packed polymer film,” Dobos says, so “the extensions require filing or grinding to remove.” This is typically best left in the hands of a professional with an e-file, as overfiling can damage nails.

Originally Appeared on Glamour