Shellac vs. Gel vs. Acrylic Nails: The Ultimate Comparison Guide

Shellac vs. Gel vs. Acrylic Nails: The Ultimate Comparison Guide

May 24, '21

All manicures are not created equal. There are different manicuring treatments used to get different desired looks and outcomes. Whether you want to extend and lengthen or you simply want to polish nails with a heavy-duty polish that won’t chip or flake off—this is your ultimate guide to comparing different nail treatments, what they do, and when to use which! 

Shellac

Shellac is a polish that combines gel and polish. It takes the best properties of gel: hardness and durability, with the best properties of polish: color and shine. Shellac is actually the brand name patented by Creative Nail Design (CND) and is a special formula owned by that company. That said, the name is used to refer to a whole group of products. 

What Shellac Does

In a simple, one-step process, shellac polish provides a long-lasting, high shine manicure that lasts up to 14 days. It is a simple application process that does not require shaping, filing, buffing, or much nail prep. It is applied like regular old nail polish.

What Shellac Doesn’t Do

Shellac does not provide added length, enhancement, or extensions. It doesn’t air dry or strengthen the nails. It is not a good option for damaged, brittle, or unhealthy nails or nail beds. 

The Details for Shellac

Drying: Cured by a LED/UV light lamp, there is virtually no drying time besides the 30-60 seconds the nails go under the light. You cannot successfully complete a shellac manicure without these ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths. They hit molecules in the formula and activate them for proper adhesion, wear, and removal. 

Durability: Shellac manicures typically last up to 14 days—until the nail visibly grows out, and they may start to flake off due to exposure to water and plain old living with hands. 

Color: Shellac comes in a variety of colors, from pinks to metallics, in over 100 shades. 

When to avoid: When you’re manicuring brittle nails.

Best time to use: For a natural-looking, durable, long-lasting manicure client who doesn’t want added length, strength, or a nail extension. 

Gel

Coming in an endless variety of color options, a gel manicure is a three-step process for clients who want a durable, long-lasting manicure. Gel can be used to mimic the length of the nail at its current state or add length through extension. 

There are actually two types of gels: hard gel and soft gel. Hard gel is a thick, goo-like consistency and, as you may have guessed, is stronger than soft gel. It is applied with a brush and can only be removed by filing it off. 

Soft gel, on the other hand, is simply applied like a polish and is not used to extend the length of the nail. For removal, soft gel can be soaked with acetone to soften it further then scraped off. 

The process for adding a gel nail tip is usually conducted with a nail form—which is a sticker that goes underneath the tip of the natural nail, and the hard gel is built upon it to create an extension. 

What Gel Does

Gel clings to the nail when cured and can either be a thick, durable manicure, or it can be used to build a nail enhancement. 

What Gel Doesn’t Do

Gel doesn’t go on the same way a polish would: it is a step-by-step process that is more time-consuming. It doesn’t strengthen the nails and can be damaging if it is picked off instead of professionally removed by soaking in acetone and scraping off with a nail tool. 

Details

Drying: Cured by a LED/UV light lamp, there is virtually no drying time besides the 30-60 seconds the nails go under the light for. 

Durability: Gel manicures can last up to four weeks. 

Color: Gel comes in a ton of colors, upwards of 300 options or more. 

When to avoid gels: You can not add gel extensions to a nail that is bitten or clipped down too short. The gel extension needs something somewhat substantial to cling onto, unlike acrylics which are simply glued on.  

If you are not adding extensions and are simply adding color to the manicured nails, any length is sufficient. 

Best time to use: For a durable, long-lasting manicure without the harsh fumes associated with acrylics. 

Shellac vs. Gel

By the looks of it, you may think, hmm… shellac and gel seem pretty similar. And yes, they are, but they are also different. 

The main difference between shellac and gel are your color options, the ability for nail length extension, and the removal process. There are nearly triple the number of color options available in gels compared to the 100 options for shellac. 

That said, the removal process for shellac is much easier than gel. When an acetone-based remover is applied, the shellac coating breaks down and releases itself from the nail—as opposed to gel polish removal, which is a little bit more intense. 

Acrylic

This process is the combination of a liquid polymer and powder polymer. It is a hard, robust, extremely durable option for extending the nail. Acrylic is never used unless you’re trying to lengthen the nail. 

Acrylic nail application requires properly prepping the nail by buffing off the nail’s layer of oil so that the acrylic clings better to the nail. After applying acrylic, it is a necessary step in completing the look to file the nail with an electric file to make it appear as even and seamless as possible. 

What Acrylic Does

Acrylic is the solution placed on top of the plastic tip to make the nail one equal length from cuticle to tip. The plastic tip is glued onto the very tip of the nail, and the acrylic is painted on to add another layer of strength, durability, and protection for the plastic tip.  

What Acrylic Doesn’t Do

Acrylic isn't used for the intention of strengthening the nail itself; rather, it builds a new barrier on top of the natural nail. 

Details

Drying: Dries on its own rather quickly after application. No LED/UV light lamp is required. The product naturally hardens as it is exposed to air. 

Durability: Acrylic manicures can last a month or more.  

Color: Valentino Beauty Pure offers a wide variety of acrylic nail colors. 

When to avoid: If your client is sensitive to harsh fumes, opt for the gel nail enhancements as another option for them.  

Best time to use: For a durable, long-lasting manicure that is intended to create length. It will last for a month until the nails begin to outgrow the manicure and need to be filled in to keep them looking nice. 

How to Choose

When it comes down to choosing which to apply or helping a client decide, it really comes down to preference and what the desired outcome is. To put it simply, acrylic is a great option when it comes to experimenting with the nail shape, length, color, and design since you have the option of adding shellac or gel polish on top of the already formed acrylic nail. 

If you are looking to strengthen a client’s nails and grow them out longer naturally, soft gel is a great option for protection and longevity. Shellac is a good go-to when the nail doesn’t need much maintenance, and you are really looking for a simple, long-lasting manicure. 

In Conclusion

Being well versed in the different options to provide your clients with will make you an even better nail tech. By confidently communicating to your nail clients the major differences and subtle similarities between different nail applications, their pros, cons, and the techniques used for application, you’ll ll have a better outcome for both you and your nail client. 

Sources: 

  1. Gel Nail Extensions: Pros, Cons, and Gel vs. Acrylic Nails | BYRDIE
  2. What Manicure Style Is Right For You: Gel, Shellac or Acrylics? | Glamour  
  3. Shellac Nails Vs. Gel Manicure: What to Know About Shellac Nails | Harper’s Bazaar