The difference between acrylic and gel nails

The difference between acrylic and gel nails

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When looking at an image of a nail set it might be hard to tell right off the bat whether acrylic or gel applications were used. Knowing the difference between the two nail systems is very important to understand what will suit your nails and lifestyle best.

The most obvious difference that you can spot when looking at the nails is the colors. Gel tends to come in many different colors. Any colors you can think of. Whereas acrylic powder is a bit limited to the colors you can get. Gel polish also has an almost paint-like effect that can easily be spotted.


Acrylic Nails

Gel Nails


Hard and durable, but not flexible.

Not as hard as acrylic, but more flexible.


Similar in appearance to gel.

Has more color variety and a glossier look 


Generally cheaper.

More expensive in general.

Average Wear Time

3 – 4 weeks if taken care of properly.

2 – 4  weeks if taken care of properly.


Need to apply a primer before application.

A bonding agent has to be applied to the natural nails.

How to Cure

Not curable in a LED/UV lamp. Air dries.

Does not air dry, needs to be cured in a UV/LED lamp.


Can be soaked off

Soaked or buffed off

Damage to Natural Nails

Doesn’t damage if applied and taken care of properly.

Doesn’t damage if applied and taken care of properly.

How Difficult to Apply

Relatively easy.

A bit more difficult than acrylic.

Best Use Cases

Strengthen weakened nails to give them a chance to grow.

When not doing as much physical work with your hands.

Acrylic nails

Acrylic nails

A lot of people still believe that acrylic nails are chunky and easily spotted. This is however not the truth. When done correctly acrylic should look natural and not bulky at all. 

What are acrylic nails

Acrylic application is done using a powder called a polymer and a liquid called the monomer. These interact chemically with each other to create the clay-like substance known as acrylic. Acrylic will then harden without needing to be cured in an LED lamp. For acrylic to last on your nails your nails will have to be prepped and primed properly.

Acrylic nails are great for people who:

  • Have damaged nails like bitten or weak nails. (Sculpture works great for giving that extra strength, but also providing enough protection for the nails so that they can heal).
  • Have an active lifestyle.
  • Need something sturdier to protect their nails from their day-to-day lifestyle

Taking care of your acrylic nails

Acrylic nails can last quite a long time when taken care of properly. Do not submerge your hands in water or using chemicals without protective gloves. So no more doing house chores or gardening without the right protective gear. Moisturization is also very important as keeping your nails nice and moisturized will keep them healthy and prevent your natural nails from drying out and breaking under your extensions. 

I wrote an extensive article on how to take care of your nail extensions, that I highly recommend you to read especially if you have extension on or planning to get. I go over topics on preventing nail infections and how often to get a fill.

It is also very, very important to remember, that even though acrylic nails are quite more durable than your everyday gel extensions, they should never be used as tools. By using your nails as tools you won’t only run the risk of cracking or lifting the product, but you can seriously injure your natural nails. So don’t wonder why your beautiful long acrylic stilettos broke after you opened a soda can or used your nail to press the flush button on a toilet.

Acrylic nails are quite hard so that’s great if you just want that extra protection. It can however be a bad thing as, when damaged, acrylic tends to crack and shatter, damaging the nail underneath.

Removing of acrylic nails

Acrylic nails can be removed in one of two ways. Soaking or filing.


Soaking of your extensions will go something like this:

  • Your nail tech will shorten the artificial extensions(if any and if it wasn’t done directly on your natural nails).
  • They will then file off the bulk of the product probably using an e-file(because carpal tunnel is a thing).
  • Then they will either place your hands in a soaking bowl, which is a dish that has spaces for your fingers that will be filled with acetone and that sits on top of a bowl of hot water, or they might use foils, which consists of drenching a cotton pad in acetone, wrapping it around your nail and covering your nail with tin foil.
  • They will then use a scraping tool like a cuticle pusher to scrape off the liquified acrylic, this is soo satisfying.
  • When your nails are completely free of acrylic they might buff them lightly to remove any extra acrylic from your nails.

One thing to remember when having your nails soaked is to moisturize your nails and hands like crazy afterward. This should be done by your nail technician but if not you should apply cuticle oil to your natural nails and cuticles and cover your hands in moisturizer. Acetone is extremely drying and will dehydrate everything it touches.


The filing of your acrylic nails is quite straightforward. Instead of just debulking the nail your nail tech will keep going. This might seem like the better option as it saves time and doesn’t include the dehydrating monster that is acetone. This however is not true. Remember that your nail is not super thick and your nail does not repair itself. 

The only way for you to get rid of a damaged part of the nail is to wait for it to grow out. Filing excessively on your nail will thin it out. So you can think for yourself what will be left on your nail when it’s filed excessively every 2-3 weeks. This is why your nail tech will either place a layer of clear acrylic or what I do, place a layer of rubber base gel, so that when they file there will be a protective barrier between your nails and the acrylic. If your nail tech files off all of the products every time you should have a serious talk.

I don’t recommend filing. I wrote an article on how to remove acrylic nails where I go into details on how to remove acrylic nails which you can read now to learn more about removing acrylic nails.

Does acrylic damage your nails?

Now the big question everyone is asking and is debating about is, does acrylic damage your nails? The answer is when applied and removed correctly acrylic should not damage your nails. You can also not pick or pull at your product and remove it the “fastest” way aka ripping it off(yeah I’m looking at you, and don’t think biting doesn’t count) and expect your nails to be healthy and singing with joy. Your nail tech has the responsibility of properly applying and removing the extensions, what happens between the weeks before your new set is your responsibility.

Gel nails

Gel Nails

Gel nails are usually done using a builder gel coupled with colored gel polish. Most people seem to think that gel looks more feminine than acrylic and less bulky. Well, as stated above, that’s just not true. The gel might seem more natural when done on shorter nails, as many people struggle with doing short acrylic nails(this takes time and practice but it should not become the norm to have chunky short nails), but when nails are longer you will find that the apex(little bulge on the nail) will become more apparent. This is because it is needed for creating strength on the nail. If there is no apex the nail will be susceptible to breakage. Gel polish is great as it comes in so many colors. If you don’t find the color you are looking for gel polish can easily be mixed like paint to create the perfect shade.

What are gel nails and who should wear them?

Gel nails are done with three main products namely, base gel, builder gel, and topcoat. The gel has to be cured in a UV/LED lamp for the specified amount of time and does not air dry. You can add gel polish and art but those three things are what are needed for the perfect gel set. Your nails need to be prepped and a bonding agent needs to be applied to your natural nails for the gel to adhere correctly. If this step is skipped your nails will not last long.

Gel nails are great if you:

  • Arent super rough on your nails.
  • Just need something for a little bit of extra protection.
  • Need your nails to be done fast as gel nails generally take a shorter time than acrylic.

Taking care of your gel nails

Gel nails are generally not as hard as acrylic but it does, however, have the advantage of being more flexible. So when you damage the product your nail won’t necessarily get as hurt as it would when acrylic gets damaged and shatters ripping the nail with it. This does however not mean that your nail can’t get damaged when wearing gel. You have to take care of the product just like with acrylic. Rubber gloves are your best friend and don’t forget the cuticle oil

How to remove gel nails

Gel nails are usually a buff-off system meaning that it has to be filled off, but some builder gels can be soaked off. When filing off the gel the base coat will protect your natural nails as the nail tech should only be filed onto the base layer and not your natural nails. The soaking and filing process for gel and acrylic is quite similar as seen above.

Does gel damage your nails?

Just like with acrylic the short answer is no. No application should damage your nails. When the product is reputable and the nail tech knows what they’re doing your nails should come out of the experience unscathed. You should also always take care of your nails and never pick at the product. If you see some product lifting or chipping rather book an appointment with your nail technician to get it fixed instead of pulling at the lifted pieces and damaging your nails in the process.


Both nail systems have their pros and cons and many people do have their preferences. I hope that this post helped you decide on what application would better fit your lifestyle.

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