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Gel vs Acrylic Nails - Differences You Need to Know

Gel vs acrylic nails, side-by-side comparison

Jackie Mcilroy |

Hey there, nail enthusiasts and soon-to-be pros!

Whether you're a budding nail technician, a beauty student, or someone just trying to figure out the best option for your next nail appointment, you're in the right place. Deciding between gel and acrylic nails can be tricky, especially when it comes to weak nails.

So, what's the main difference between gel and acrylic nails? It's all about the products and process. Gel nails are created using a liquid resin cured under UV or LED light. On the other hand, acrylic nails are a mix of liquid and powder that is applied and then shaped to perfection.

While some gel nails can be created by just about anybody (at home or in the salon), acrylics are exclusively created in salons or professional environments.

Simple, right?

Now, let's help you choose the perfect nail enhancement for you or your clients!

What are Gel Nails?

Gel nails are created with a special gel polish that hardens only when cured under UV or LED light. This provides a strong, flexible, and glossy finish that is chip-resistant and longer-lasting than regular nail polish. Gel nails are perfect for those who want a durable manicure.

You may have heard of a few different types of gel nails over the years…

  • Hard Gel Nails - These are used for gel nail extensions. Hard gels can be sculpted into various shapes and lengths, making them ideal for anyone wanting long sturdy nails that can withstand everyday wear and tear.
  • Soft Gel Nails - Soft gels/gel polishes are similar to traditional nail polishes but with the added benefit of a long-lasting, chip-resistant finish. They are perfect for those who want a stronger alternative to nail polish. Some people also call these “soak-off gels”, as they can be easily removed by soaking them in acetone.

Gel polishes are highly pigmented, meaning they can really stand out if you go for a bright colour, like those in our Dream Goddess Festival Collection:

Gel Nail Advantages...

👍 They Look & Feel Natural - Gel nails are thin and lightweight compared to acrylics, meaning they can look and feel more like natural nails. If your client has never had a nail enhancement or isn't used to wearing nail polish, gels are therefore a great starting point.


👍 Soft Gels are Easy to Remove - Soft gel/gel polish can be easily removed by soaking in acetone, meaning your clients can choose to remove these at home if they prefer. Alternatively, they can be removed easily and quickly at the salon.


👍 Hard Gels are Good for Refills - If your client wants to keep their hard gel nails after they grow out, they can be easily refilled at the salon rather than removed. This is great for clients who want to maintain their nails long-term, and want to invest in a nail routine.


👍 Gel is Gentle on Weak Nails - Gel nails cause less damage to weak or brittle nails, as they provide a protective layer over the natural nail. This layer reinforces the natural nail, meaning there's less chance of it chipping, peeling or breaking underneath.


👍 Made from Non-Porous Material - Hard gel is non-porous, making it less likely to lift with moisture, which is great for swimmers and those who bathe frequently. It’s also stain resistant, which is perfect for hairdressers or artists who work with dyes.

 

Gel Nail Disadvantages...

 👎 More Costly - Gel nails can be more expensive than acrylic nails, both in salons and for DIY kits So if your client is wanting to maintain their nails long-term, the price can quickly tot up!


👎 Prone to Chipping - While gel nails are strong and less prone to breakage, a soft gel polish is more likely to chip off or peel compared to acrylic nails. This could mean tour clients need to come in for touch ups more regularly. 


👎 Heat Spikes - Some people experience "heat spikes" under the UV light during the curing process. Although this doesn't happen for everyone, it can be painful for those with sensitive nails or weak nail beds.
 

 

What are Acrylic Nails? 

Acrylic nails are created by combining a liquid monomer with a powder polymer to create an acrylic paste. This paste is applied to your natural nails or nail tip extensions, then sculpted into the desired shape and length. Once set, the nails are filed and polished for a durable, stylish finish that can last several weeks.

When it comes to acrylic nails, there are two main types to consider: acrylic overlays and acrylic nail extensions…

  • Acrylic Overlays - Acrylic overlays involve adding a thin layer of acrylic over your natural nails. They’re perfect for strengthening your nails without changing their length. They’re handy for growing out your nails without worrying about damage.
  • Acrylic Nail Extensions - Acrylic nail extensions are all about adding length. This is done by attaching a nail tip or using a form to sculpt the acrylic into the desired shape and length. Extensions are ideal if you want long, glamorous nails or want to try out different shapes that are tough to achieve with natural nails.

Acrylic Nail Advantages... 

 👍 They’re Super Durable - Acrylic nails are hard and less prone to breakage or chipping. Perfect for those who are tough on their nails, whether that’s the client themselves or you as the nail tech!


👍 Acrylics are Long-Lasting - Acrylics can last up to 3 weeks or more with proper care. This means clients only have to visit the salon when they grow out, usually once a month for most people.


👍 Good for Refills - Even after they grow out, acrylic nails can be easily refilled with a monthly trip to the salon. Although it’s recommended to take a break after 3 months to maintain the health of the natural nails.


👍 More Affordable in Salons - Generally, acrylic nails are more budget-friendly compared to other nail enhancements, which makes them popular for students and younger clients on a tighter budget.


👍 Can Cater to Versatile Looks - You can create versatile looks with 3D nail art, making them ideal for creative and bold designs. If your client shows you inspo photos with wild designs, acrylics are the way to go.


👍 Quick Setting - Acrylic nails set faster than other types, speeding up the application process. This means your clients will be in and out of the salon chair quicker, compared to the time needed for a gel nail extension appointment.

 

Acrylic Nail Disadvantages...

👎 Can Potentially Cause Damage - Over time acrylics pose the risk of damaging natural nails by making them weak, dry, and discoloured. This is because the natural nail is filed beforehand, which can weaken it if repeated too often. 


👎 Feel Heavier & Look Thicker - Acrylic nails are more bulky than gel nails, which can be uncomfortable for those who aren’t used to nail enhancements. They also look slightly thicker than gel nails, which is off-putting if you want a more natural look.


👎 Difficult to Apply - For beginner nail techs or those learning to do acrylics for the first time, it can be tricky to get the right mixing ratio of monomer to powder.


👎 Strong Smelling - Acrylic nails have a strong smell during application, which can cause headaches and requires an environment with proper ventilation. This is why acrylics are more suitable for professional nail settings, rather than "at home" use.

 

Gel vs Acrylic Nails - Quick Comparison 

Gel Nails  Acrylic Nails

Cured under UV or LED light.

    Air dries naturally. 

      Removed by acetone and filing.

        Removal by acetone.

          Hard gel extensions last 3-4 weeks.

          Soft gels / gel polish lasts 2-3 weeks.

           Acrylic extensions last 3-4 weeks.

          Acrylic overlays last 2-3 weeks. 

          Feels lightweight.

           Feels slightly heavier. 

           Thin appearance.  

          Slightly more bulky appearance. 

          Less damaging to natural nails. 

          Can weaken and dry nails out.  

           Higher salon price tag.

          More affordable in salons. 

          Potential pain from heat spikes. Strong smell during application.
          Easy to DIY soft gels/gel polish at home. Requires a professional environment.

           

          Key Differences Between Gel vs Acrylic Nails

          Now that we’ve done quick comparison between gel and acrylic nails, let’s break it down even further and get down to the nitty gritty differences in these manicure nail types.

          1. Application

          Gel nails are applied in layers, and each layer is cured under a UV or LED light. This process hardens the gel and sets it in place. The product used for gel nails is a liquid resin. Gel nails can be easier to apply at home with the right tools and practice.

          In contrast, acrylic nails are made by mixing a liquid monomer with a powder polymer to form a paste, which is then sculpted onto the nails and air dried quickly. This application process can be tricker as it requires precise mixing and quick shaping.

           

          2. Maintenance 

          Soft gels and gel polishes are low maintenance - they need touch-ups every 2-3 weeks and easy removal by soaking in acetone. Hard gels last longer but require regular fills and more effort to remove, often needing to be filed off.

          Acrylic nails, whether overlays or extensions, need more upkeep. They are durable but can lift at the edges and feel heavier. Fills are needed every 2-3 weeks, and removal involves soaking in acetone and extra filing.

           

          3. Removal 

          Removing gel nails is generally easier, especially for soft gels and gel polishes. You simply soak them in acetone until they soften and can be wiped off. This process is gentle and less damaging to natural nails, usually taking about 10 minutes.

          Acrylic nails take longer to remove, as you need to soak them in acetone for 15-20 minutes and then file them to remove all the product completely. This process can potentially damage natural nails if not done carefully or by an experienced professional.

          Similar to acrylics, hard gel extensions need to be filed off and soaked in acetone. This removal process requires skill and usually takes anywhere between 30-45 minutes from start to finish.

           

          4. Look & Feel

          Soft gels and gel polishes offer a natural, glossy finish and are lightweight and flexible, closely mimicking real nails. They’re perfect for a subtle and natural look.

          Hard gel extensions provide a durable, glossy finish and can be shaped into long styles. They are less flexible than soft gels but still offer a semi-natural appearance, suitable for those wanting extra length and a polished look.

          Acrylic nails are thicker and sturdier, meaning they can feel heavier and less natural compared to gels. However, this strength makes them ideal for intricate 3D nail art designs, so you can really get creative with gems, studs, and crystals!

           

          5. Longevity 

          When it comes to strength and longevity, gel and acrylic nails have their own perks. Soft gels and gel polishes are flexible and less prone to breakage, typically lasting about 2-3 weeks.

          Hard gel extensions are more robust, adding length and lasting around 3-4 weeks with proper care.

          Acrylic nails, on the other hand, are extremely durable and strong, making them less likely to break or chip. They can last up to 3-4 weeks before needing a fill, making them a great option for long-lasting, sturdy nails.

           

          6. Cost

          Gel nails tend to be slightly more expensive for clients due to the specialised products used and UV/LED curing process involved, whereas acrylic nails are generally more affordable.

          If you’re trying to figure out how much to charge for gel or acrylic nails, here’s an estimate of common prices from salons in Northern Ireland:

          • Soft Gel/Gel Polish - Full set typically costs £30-£45, with fills costing £15-£30.
          • Gel Nail Extension - Full set typically costs £35 -£50, with fills costing £25-£35.
          • Acrylic Nails - Full set typically costs £25-£35, with fills costing £15-£25.

           

          Decision Time…Choosing Gel or Acrylic Nails

          Alright, so you’ve learned the ins and outs of gel and acrylic nails. Now, it's time to decide which one is right for you or your clients. We always encourage you to think about the differences and consider what features align with your nail goals.

          When it comes to gel vs acrylic nails, here’s what we advise you ask your clients:

          Do you have weak nails that break easily?
          If yes, go for gel nails (especially soft gels/gel polish). They’re gentler and can help strengthen natural nails.

          Do you use your hands a lot for demanding daily activities?
          Go for acrylic nails, these are stronger and can withstand wear and tear.

          Do you have a busy schedule, and can't visit the salon often?
          Go for soft gel nails, these can be easily removed at home if you don’t have time to visit the salon every month.

          Do you want nails as a one off, for a special occasion?
          Go for acrylic nails, these are great for bold one-off looks!

          Do you have a limited budget?
          Go for acrylic nails, these are a more cost effective option and are still long-lasting.

           

          Gel vs Acrylic Nail Essentials

          So, now that you've figured out which nail enhancement suits you or your client best, remember that the equipment needed for each type is different. Creating beautiful gel nails or sturdy acrylic nails requires specific tools and products.

          We’ll go over the essentials for each type next.

           

          Gel Nails Checklist

          Creating stunning gel nails requires a few essential tools and products. Whether you want gel overlays or gel nail extensions, the equipment will slightly differ. The great news is that gel nails can be easily done at home with the right supplies.

          Here’s a checklist with everything you need…

          If you want to create gel nail extensions, you’ll also need...

           

          If you’re wanting to try DIY gel nails or practice your gel nails skills at home (and don’t want the fuss of shopping for all the above products separately) we also offer full gel nail starter kits. These kits include everything you need, from prep tools to nail tips and more.

          All you need is to pair these kits with a LED or UV nail lamp and you’re ready to go!

          The Edge Nails UV Gel Kit (Without Lamp) - Franklins

          If you’re a nail tech wanting to expand your gel nail polish colour collection, be sure to check out our range of professional gel nail polishes. 

          While it's great to have a few of your favourite colour choices at home, when you’re offering gel nails at a professional level it's important to have variety. This way you can cater to whatever design or look your nail clients ask for.

          SHOP GEL POLISHES

           

           

          Acrylic Nails Checklist

          Creating beautiful and sturdy acrylic nails also requires a set of essential tools and products. While you can use some of the same tools as you would for gels, some essentials are unique to acrylics.

          Here’s a checklist of everything you’ll need for acrylic nails...

          For beginners learning acrylic nails, we offer acrylic nail starter kits that include most of these essentials. These kits are very convenient and cost effective, giving you everything you need to get started in one package.

          The Edge Acrylic Liquid & Powder Kit - Franklins

          Take a full look at our selection of professional-quality acrylic powders and liquids, that help you achieve the best results every time. Don’t forget, we also offer a trade discount for nail techs, salons and professionals, meaning it’s easier and more affordable to stock up on all your nail essentials. 

          Happy nail crafting!

          SHOP ACRYLIC POWDERS & LIQUIDS

           

          FAQs

          Still have some questions on gel and acrylic nails? Check out our FAQs below.

          Is gel or acrylic better for weak nails?

          Gel nails, especially soft gels, are better for weak nails. They are more flexible and gentler, providing a protective layer without adding excessive weight or causing damage. Acrylics can be harsher and more likely to weaken already fragile nails.

          What type of nails should I get for the first time?

          For your first time, consider gel nails. They are easier to apply and remove, less damaging to your natural nails, and offer a natural, glossy finish. Gel nails are also more flexible and comfortable, making them a great starting point for beginners who want a durable yet gentle option.

          Does gel polish need a UV lamp?

          Yes, gel polish needs a UV or LED lamp to cure and harden properly. The lamp's light activates the gel, changing it from a liquid to a solid state. Without this curing process, the gel polish will remain tacky and won’t achieve the durable, glossy finish gel nails are known for.

          How should clients take care of gel or acrylic nails between appointments?

          To care for gel or acrylic nails between appointments, advise clients to keep them clean and dry, and regularly moisturise their cuticles with cuticle oil. Avoid using new nails as tools, for example when opening tins or cans. Try to wear gloves when doing household chores or any tasks that expose the hands to harsh chemicals. Also try to file any rough edges gently to prevent snagging.