Gels vs. Acrylics: What’s the Difference Between Fake Nails?
Fake nails: Depending who you ask, they’re either works of art, an absolute necessity, tacky nonsense, or a special-occasion treat. To me, they’re miracles of chemistry — and the way I completely, totally trashed my nails.
There are three basic types of fake nails, all of them from the acrylic family of plastics. The term "acrylic nail" usually refers to liquid and powder mixes, which are combined in front of you into a blob of dough, shaped onto your nail with a brush, and then air dried. Gel nails are painted on from a little pot of gloop and then cured under a UV light — the same basic technology as "soft" polish gels, but resulting in a harder nail. Dip nails are created by brushing the nail with glue, sprinkling on the same powder used in liquid and powder systems, and then adding an activator, sparking a chain reaction between the acrylic and the glue to create a hard, smooth surface.
(All of these systems grew out of dental technology, used for bridges and crowns. Many major nail product companies started in dental products before branching out to cosmetics. OPI, for instance, originally stood for Odontorium Products Inc.)
The author's own nails, with acrylics. Photo: Cat Ferguson
Extensions, aka the artificially long nails you might think of when you hear "acrylics," are not part of every dip or gel manicure. For added length, the products are applied either over a tip — a long piece of plastic glued to the end of your nail — or over a form, a little sticker under your natural nail that guides the extension and peels off once the nail is hard.
Each of the systems have benefits and drawbacks. "Gels have a harder, non-porous surface, so they’re less likely to stain — like if you work with hair color," Alisha Rimando, executive vice president and creative director of Artistic Nail Design, told me. "The downside for me is they don’t soak off. You can’t get them off unless somebody files them off."
Acrylics, being more porous, are both more likely to stain and easier to soak off in acetone, because both dye and remover can get in between the molecules of the plastic. That’s a selling point if there’s a possibility you’ll want to take the nails off yourself. Acrylics are also widely available and tend to be less expensive than gel. But a major drawback is the horrible smell liquid and powder systems usually give off during application. If not put on correctly, they can also be uncomfortably thick.
Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty
Dip nails can be applied quickly, and they don’t take as much skill as acrylics. According to Doug Schoon, a scientific consultant to the beauty industry and president of Schoon Scientific, they’re softer and more flexible than other extensions, because of their chemical makeup. Depending on your nails and your lifestyle, the softer consistency of dip nails might add comfort, or increase breakage.
Gels, acrylics, and dips all harden through chemical reactions that bond short chains of molecules into long ones, called polymers, solidifying the nail in the process.
In both gels and acrylics, the polymers hold hands with each other in ladder-like "cross-links." In dip powders, the polymers are tangled up like hairs in dreadlocks, but they don’t interconnect. "Gels and [liquid and powder acrylics] build net-like structures that are much more durable and stronger," Schoon told me.
Like any product in our great capitalist experiment, nail extensions can be the subject of misleading marketing, customer misinformation, and even outright fraud.
"Acrylic is liquid and powder, gel is gel. Period. If your nail tech can't tell you exactly what the product is called, if it comes out of a labelled mystery pot, or [they] insist it's gel even though it's powder, you're probably sitting in the wrong chair," Robyn Schwartz, a nail technician and Akzentz Certified Educator, told me.
(I experienced this the first time I got acrylics, after walking into a random cheap salon and asking for gel nails without knowing what I was talking about. Don’t be like me! If they paint your nail with thick goo out of a pot and then stick your hands under UV, it’s gel. If they mix liquid and powder and mush it on, it’s acrylics. And if they paint your nail and then sprinkle powder on, it’s dip. Don’t let them literally dip your nails into a jar of powder — that means they’re using that same powder on multiple people, which is unsanitary.)
Gel is usually more expensive than other systems, but is it better?
"A lot is marketing," Rimando told me. "When gel first started being promoted, everyone was like, ‘It’s much safer, it doesn’t damage nails.’ Consumer perception allowed salons to charge more — plus, you can’t sell gels in gallon containers like you can acrylics, so you can’t get a volume discount."
Some technicians will tell clients a product is a gel/acrylic hybrid, or a "powder gel." Neither of those exist, although it is possible to put a gel nail polish over liquid and powder acrylics. "Solar," "crystal," and "diamond" nails are all phrases salons use to make either gel, liquid and powder, or dip systems sound fancier (and more expensive). But they’re still going to be the same basic technology.
Photo: Boston Globe/Getty
As for safety, when done properly, fake nails shouldn’t damage your nails much. "Nail technicians push what they know, so they’ll swear one is more organic and safer, and they’re not," Schoon told me.
Technicians aren’t the only source of misinformation. "Gel manufacturers are out there implying that gels are healthier for the natural nails. There’s no reason to believe that at all," Schoon said.
Most damage attributed to nail extensions is actually caused by over-filing the nails, which is most likely to happen when a technician forgoes a hand buffer in favor of a drill fitted with a file tip to remove the top layer of natural nail. ("I’ve never met a nail tech in 30 years who under-files," Schoon told me.)
Over-filing is no joke. After months of acrylic fills at discount salons, I soaked the nails off, and here’s what my nails looked like — note the red line on my middle finger in the second picture, where a tech filed down nearly to my nail bed:
The author's nails, post-acrylic removal. Photo: Cat Ferguson
Some over-filing can be attributed to history. In the bad old days, fake nails were often made out of methyl methacrylate, or MMA, more commonly used for making tooth crowns and cementing hip and knee replacements to bone. It is also the raw material for making Plexiglas.
"[MMA] doesn’t bond to the nail all that well, so the techs would shred the natural nail with a coarse file to make the MMA stick. It’s very hard to soften in acetone, and you’ve shredded the nail so when you remove it you damage the nail tremendously," said Paul Bryson, a chemist and the director of regulatory compliance at OPI.
After the nail is filed down that far, it is much weaker than the MMA. If the fake nail catches on something, the damaged natural nail is more likely to give way than the super-rigid plastic, resulting in injuries — including the whole natural nail tearing off the finger.
The FDA first warned consumers about methyl methacrylate in the 70’s, and most professional societies and cosmetology schools now advise techs to only use the much safer ethyl methacrylate. Many states have banned using MMA for fake nails. Some discount salons still use it, because it’s so much cheaper — watch out for unlabeled containers of product, a very strong smell, and suspiciously cheap manicures.
Unlike MMA, modern enhancement products can stick with just enough roughing up to take the shine off your nail. While MMA has largely been "hounded out of the industry," as Bryson put it, some nail techs still over-file nails into that very rough texture, which can seriously damage the nail, and even the skin underneath.
If you get a tech who does it right, you’re pretty unlikely to sustain any serious damage. But even with the over-filing, I loved my acrylics. I wore them for months and never lost one, despite being incredibly rough on my nails. So knowing that picking between gel, acrylic, and dip is a matter of opinion, your lifestyle, and your nails — as opposed to safety — I talked to some people who prefer dip or gel over acrylics.
Giselle Guerra, a senior in psychology at St. John’s University in New York, is extremely into her dip nails. "I’ve done acrylics a few times, and it always falls off right away, it’s so annoying. A week and a half is a long time for me with acrylics," she told me. "If you hit something, [dip nails] bend with it, so it won’t hurt as much. If I press down on it right now, it bends a little."
Amanda Mull, a fashion and culture writer in Brooklyn (a friend of mine who, incidentally, introduced me to the idea that professionals can have crazy-ass fake claws), gets her gel extensions done at a salon that specializes in fakes, rather than regular manicures.
"If you’re looking for fake nails of any sort, the most important thing you can do is check out salons near you and find ones that do a ton of extensions," she told me. Dedicated salons will have much more experienced technicians, she pointed out, since that’s their specialty.
Mull wore acrylics in high school, because that’s what all the salons near her offered and what all the other girls wore. When she first went back to fake nails about a year ago, she got dip nails, but found they broke off pretty regularly. So she switched to gels based on a recommendation from a salon that specializes in extensions.
Photo: Hindustan Times/Getty
"The acrylics I had were a little bit bulkier, and the process of putting them on seemed a little bit messier than gels," she told me. "[Gels] feel a little bit more like a natural nail, because they’re not as thick, but they’re just as hard. I can still click them together like Dolly Parton, which is one of the main joys of fake nails."
Overall, I got the same basic advice from pretty much everyone I talked to: Whichever system you choose, the most important step in leaving with healthy nails will be your technician. So don’t be afraid to ask questions before sitting down. Ask about their filing techniques, how they plan to get the things off when you don’t want them anymore, which products they’re most comfortable using, and how they clean their tools.
You may feel like an obnoxious client, but let’s be serious. If a salon doesn’t want to answer those basic questions, do you really want to put your nails in their hands?
Watch: What You Should Know About Gel Manicures
Very few things are more satisfying and relaxing for me than a nail salon trip for a fresh set of acrylic nails. It’s the little things that I look forward to that make it so sweet. From picking a nail polish color to the buzzing sound of the electric nail drill smoothing out any roughness on my nail, and, of course, walking away with a set of freshly coated nails to tap, tap, tap on every surface I pass. Then comes the not-so-satisfying part like the nail breaking in half or breaking off completely; the painful removal process; and the thin, brittle nails I’m left to nurse back to health for weeks on-end. What do you do when you want the look of long acrylic nails without the risk or damage? Enter: gel nail extensions.
What separates gel and acrylics nails is the structure of the nail. An acrylic tip is made of plastic and requires a monomer liquid and polymer powder to create the sculpted nail. In contrast, gel nail extensions are “pre-shaped nail tips that are made completely out of the gel and cover the entire nail,” Trenna Seney, NYC freelance nail manicurist, tells ELLE.com. Think press-on—sans nail glue—but more durable and versatile. Gel nails are a healthier alternative to acrylic nails; they are quicker to apply and even quicker to remove—damage free. Although the pandemic has forced many people to channel their inner nail artist until salons are entirely safe and operating, Seney recommends resisting the urge to do gel extensions yourself until you can see a professional. Until then, here’s a guide of everything you need to know about gel extensions.
Yes, gel extensions are better than regular acrylic.
What makes gel extensions the superior in this situation is that it’s not only made of gel for long-wear and durability, but it doesn’t require any harsh chemicals. “There are plenty of benefits, including no damage to your natural nails, the tips are lightweight, there are no fumes, strong odors, and heavy filing. When my clients remove their gel extensions, their natural nails are longer and stronger,” Seney adds. When you get acrylic tips, the removal process involves drilling, soaking, and filing. With gel extensions, you remove them by simply soaking your nails in acetone, and the gel tips dissolve. You don’t have to worry about gel extensions preventing you from doing your everyday tasks, either. “The gel tips are pretty strong, so you can do normal daily things without being worried your nail will pop off or lift. I tell my clients try not to touch too much-rubbing alcohol or acetone,” Seney adds, as alcohol and acetone can weaken the gel tip.
How long do gel nail extensions last?
When done professionally, Seney says gel extensions can last up to three to four weeks. Seney adds that investing in your craft and quality products can extend the client’s wear-time for up to five weeks. Seney uses the popular Apres Gel-X system and Medusa Gel Polish for her nail art designs.
How much do gel extensions typically cost?
They will cost you a few extra dollars more than the normal acrylic tip rate because of how strong and long-lasting gel extensions are. Seney explains that “rates depend on the nail tech’s level of expertise and what the client wants on the nails. Swarovski crystals, hand-painted designs, charms, etc. all come with a hefty price tag. Gel extensions range from $$, the more intricate [the design], the pricier it gets.”
How are gel extensions applied?
- Step 1: Prep the nails. The nail tech will file the client’s nails, push cuticles back, trim dead cuticles, and buff nails. The nails must be clean (and dry) before application.
- Step 2: Find the right size. Take each finger and find the correct size tip that fits. All the nails in the kit have numbers to compare.
- Step 3: Depending on your nail tech’s skill level, file the inside of the nail tips or apply a layer of acetone.
- Step 4: Apply bonder liquid to natural nails. Bonder is a dehydrator and you want to make sure your natural nails are as dry as possible with no oils or debris.
- Step 5: Apply primer liquid to natural nails. Primer makes your nails sticky so that it’s easier for the gel to attach. (Both the bonder and primer are included in the Apres Gel X kit)
- Step 6: Apply a thin layer of extend gel to the natural nails. (Clear gel liquid also included in the kit)
- Step 7: Put your hand in the UV/LED lamp for 60 seconds.
- Step 8: Apply some gel to the tips. Make sure the client’s hand is straight. Apply the gel tip to the natural nail, and press down. As one hand is holding the tip on the client's hand, take your other hand holding a handheld LED light shine it directly on the nail for 30 seconds. Then have the client place her hand inside the UV/LED lamp for 60 seconds.
- Step 9: Repeat on all fingers
- Step All done!
What about aftercare?
Soak off your gel extensions and let your natural nails breathe with nothing on them for a week.
Gel-X Nail Extension Kit
Nerisha PenroseBeauty Commerce EditorNerisha is the beauty commerce editor at ELLE.com, covering all things beauty (and fashion and music).
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20 Acrylic Nail Ideas Worth Bringing to Your Next Appointment
My favorite thing about acrylic nails is also kinda my least favorite thing about acrylic nails: There are so many freaking design options to chose from that it can feel majorly overwhelming when it comes to finding inspo. Like, do you go super abstract with waves and swirls? Oooor do you lean into a trendier design, like cow print or flames? Throw that in with the fact that acrylics last a whopping weeks, and you're in for a straight-up tough decision. Here's an idea though: Make your life x easier by scrolling through our list of the 20 coolest acrylic nail ideas before your appointment. Whether you're looking for Kylie Jenner-level designs or more lowkey and subtle options, you're basically guaranteed to find something you love, ahead.
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40 Cool Acrylic Nail Ideas No Matter the Season or Occasion
In a world where gel manicures seem to reign supreme, you may have forgotten about their equally, if not more so, long-lasting cousin, acrylics. Acrylic manicures are renowned for their rock-solid durability and extra length, both of which allow for some pretty eye-catching nail art.
Not sure what you'd want besides a solid coat of color? Allow us to lend you a hand. Ahead, you'll find 40 cool acrylic nail ideas that are sure to turn heads no matter the season or occasion. We have a funny feeling you'll find more than a few you'll want to keep tabs on for your manicures in the weeks and months to come.
If you've yet to try your hand (er, fingers) at the cow print nail art trend, now's your chance. Lucky for you, when working with acrylic nails your manicurist will be able to create even more dots and spots to make a can't-miss style statement.
Cherry Acrylic Nails
All American and avant-garde, these acrylic nails are quite literally the cherry on top of a perfect mani. If you don't love the summery delight, consider swapping them for berries, coconuts, or your favorite citrus fruit.
Prefer slightly shorter, more neutral nails? These almond-shaped rose quartz nails will give you all the good vibes.
Palatial Acrylic Nails
We're loving the royal vibes of this milky mani. The hue is on the border of blue and purple, and we guarantee it'll look good no matter the season.
Marbled Acrylic Nails
Sometimes things really are as simple as black and white. Case in point: these gorgeous black and white marble acrylic nails.
Barbie Pink Acrylic Nails
If you're a Barbie girl in a Barbie world, you likely already have your manicurist on speed dial over these swoon-worthy clear pink acrylic nails. The jelly finish creates a see-through allure that simply can't be overlooked.
Line Drawing Acrylic Nails
We're in love with this simple acrylic nail design that mimics the elegance of a line drawing. Find some stencils you love, or go freehand if you're looking to work your art skills.
Starry Eyed Acrylic Nails
A star nail design is simple but fabulous, and it never goes out of style. That's just the case with these acrylics that have a way of fitting with any season.
Rainbow Flair Acrylic Nails
We love this modern take on a French manicure, with a rainbow of neon colors streaming down the top of each acrylic nail.
Pink Ombré Acrylic Nails
In case you missed it, pink ombré nails are a major fixture these days. If you want to test out the look, bring this acrylic beauty as inspo.
Pride Acrylic Nails
You don't have to wear these rainbow acrylics during Pride month to show off your spirit. Needless to say, we love.
We're off to the races with this nail design, which looks as if you dipped each finger into a different shade of the checkerboard flag found at finish lines. A champion acrylic nail idea, indeed.
We don't know what we love more about this nail design: the rich blue shade, the fluffy clouds, or the star detailing interspersed throughout.
Perfect for a summer pool day, these neon digits will make a head-turning statement.
Pink Starburst Acrylic Nails
Pretty in pink (hot, pastel, neon—you name it): Just consider this another take on the beloved Barbie nail look.
Ballerina Pink Acrylic Nails
Pink, almond-shaped, and slim—a simple everyday look that deserves all the recognition. Just be sure to file your edges to keep your lengths intact.
Sunset Acrylic Nails
The multi-hued ombré manicure has been incredibly popular as of late, and it's showing no sign of slowing down. To get in on the look while it's still topping the nail art charts, consider this acrylic sunset manicure as your inspiration.
Butterfly Acrylic Nails
Butterflies remind us of all things bella—Bella Hadid and a beautiful life, that is. If you're all about the fluttery, flirty look, consider trying this acrylic nail idea.
Silver French Manicure
A pale pink manicure with tips in shiny silver instead of the traditional French? Um, yes, please.
Jade Acrylic Nails
Why not embrace jade as a cheery neutral for your nails? These pale green acrylics make our crystal-loving hearts skip a beat.
Short Acrylic Nails
Need an acrylic design that leaves you able to do everything you could with bare nails? We totally get it. This design packs both tortoiseshell and checkerboard onto a smaller canvas—what more could you want?
Metallic Acrylic Nails
Maybe it's just us, but these metallic, almond-shaped nails remind us of all things Sailor Moon. You too? You know what to do.
Ruby Red Acrylic Nails
Like a bold red lip, these bright red acrylics never go out of style. Pair with a stiletto shape for a show-stopping finish.
Colorful Chanel Acrylic Nails
We love a designer moment as much as the next person. Mix a classic brand with modern neon and you have yourself a match made in nail heaven.
Neutral Mismatched Acrylic Nails
Here's another example of how the mismatched nail trend doesn't have to be bold to be noteworthy. With a neutral color palette and minimalist decorations, this manicure is simple and eloquent.
Wavy Acrylic Nails
Two words: groovy, baby. Especially since these negative space acrylic nails ensure that grow-out will be hard to notice.
Mermaid Acrylic Nails
We can't keep our eyes off this mermaid-inspired design, which goes above and beyond with silver glitter scales. We're here for this.
Pink Tip Acrylic Nails
Pink tips? Check. Holographic confetti? Check. Need we say more?
Simple Butterfly Acrylic Nails
These acrylic ballerina nails might look low-key and neutral, but two butterfly wings make the look a bit more bold without going overboard. The intricacy of these wings is almost as beautiful as butterflies themselves.
Oxblood makes our autumn-loving hearts all warm and fuzzy. Luckily for us, the rich hue can be worn all year long, and it feels even more festive with some added bedazzling.
White Flame Acrylic Nails
We love the modern white take on a classic orange flame. Subtle and bold all at the same time, this white hot acrylic nail idea can work all year round.
If you feel like you've tried everything under the sun when it comes to acrylic nail art, it's time to take things to another dimension. The bubble texture and deep iridescence will have everyone staring, and is great for around Halloween or any time you want something more avant-garde.
Bedazzled Acrylic Nails
Solid nails are pretty and all, but when you add a few gemstones to the mix, you're left with a gorgeous manicure that's that much more stunning. The subtle butterflies and slightly mismatched shapes here only add to the allure.
Gold Foil Acrylic Nails
White acrylics go from simple to royal with tiny flecks of gold. We're dreaming about all the ways we can incorporate this must-try nail look into our going-out outfits.
When recreating this look on your own, opt for gold flake appliqués (which stick to your nail polish and are set with top coat) instead of trying to hand-paint the details on your own.
Jelly Acrylic Nails
While these acrylics are longer than long, the idea remains the same: You simply can't go wrong with the jelly nail art trend. Whether you wear it in a coffin, square, almond, or squoval shape, you're sure to fall in love with the unique nail look.
Glossy and Matte Acrylic Nails
Can't choose between a glossy or matte finish? You don't have to. With this acrylic nail idea, you can see how stunning pairing the two can be.
Faux Stiletto Acrylic Nails
One of the best parts about acrylics is that you can achieve things that would be impossible with natural nails. Amidst a matte, dusty rose manicure, this design's clear accent nails achieve a unique look via internal flowers and gold foil.
Neon Stiletto Acrylic Nails
Why stop at one neon color when you can play with two? Here, neutral matte polish pairs with neon green and yellow hues for a nail look fit for a '90s-loving queen.
Pearl Acrylic Nails
Keep your neutral manicure anything but boring by getting acrylic nails with iridescent tips and a base of pearls. With a design like this, you just may have the best-accessorized hands in the house.
Glow-in-the-Dark Acrylic Nails
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The wonderful world of acrylic nails is home to so many fun and innovative designs. Although they're frequently associated with extra-long looks, acrylics actually let you can experiment with different lengths and interesting styles, whether you want a short, square French manicure or a set of lengthy, neon-pink, stiletto-shaped nails. The possibilities feel fairly endless (and, at times, overwhelming), but this gallery of 60 images of acrylic nail art ideas can be a guide for your next appointment.
You'll want to make sure the design is one you love because these types of manicures are long-lasting. Acrylics tend to be harder than gel, nail artist Brittney Boyce previously told Allure. They're created by mixing a powder (polymer) — usually clear, but the powders come in a range of colors — and a liquid (monomer) into a dough-like consistency that can be filed and molded. From there, a talented nail artist can create whatever your imagination conjures.
And if you're worried about potential damage to your nails: don't be. The key to healthy nails with acrylics is proper removal with the right tools (like lots of acetone) and tons of time and patience. (This how-to guide has all the steps for at-home removal.) The right nail technician will be able to care for your natural nails regardless of whether you use acrylic powders, gel polishes, or gel extensions. So peruse this gallery full of acrylic manicures in square, stiletto, coffin, almond, and even lipstick shapes. We're sure that you'll be able to find exactly what you need for your next nail appointment.