The Beginner's Guide to Gel Manicures: Gel Nails in 2024

Most people tend to explore gel nails beyond traditional nail polish because they heard gel nails offer stronger, longer-lasting nails — and they’re right.

This article will explain everything you need to know about gel nails and gel manicures - how they work, the process, and tips for making them last longer. You'll learn the differences between UV and LED lamps, salon versus at-home application, popular gel nail polish brands, and how to get the most out of your chip-free gel mani.

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What are gel nails?

Gel nails use a nail polish that can only harden on your natural nails when exposed under UV or LED light to create a hard, chip-resistant manicure. This is why gels can only be set by lamps that emit LED or UV light. 

Gel Nails with S&L gel polish

The result of this process is a strong, flexible glossy finish that's chip-free and long-lasting. Gel manicures use only polish; no acrylic tips or other artificial nails are applied.

What gel nails are not

Gel manicures differ from acrylic nails, dip powder nails, shellac nails and regular manicures in a few key ways. With gel manis:

  • No acrylic nail tips or extensions are needed, only polish on natural nails
  • No powder dipping products are used to coat the nails
  • The gel nail polish is cured under UV or LED lamps, not air dried like regular polish and shellac nails

What gel nails look like

Gel manicures tend to have a smooth, high-gloss shine with an even coverage and color across the nails. Compared to regular nail polish, the color of gel polish tends to appear more vivid and intense on the nails.

This comes from the fact that the gel formula allows for deeper, richer pigment saturation than your traditional polish. The gel formula also resists fading and yellowing, which allows it to maintain its color for weeks.

Downside of gel nails

Gel nails can be hard on your natural nails. If you get them often, they can make your nails weak or thin. This is because taking off the gel is tough on your nails. You have to soak your nails in acetone, which makes them dry and brittle. Also, when you file your nails to remove the gel, it can make them thinner over time.

The other aspect to consider is that the UV light used to set the gel can be harmful to your skin. This is why we recommend applying sunscreen on your hand before applying gel nails or wearing a UV protection glove that only exposes your fingernails. 

uv protection glove

Gel nails vs other nail options:

SCROLL ➡️ Gel Manicure Powder Dip Acrylics Regular Polish Shellac
Process Thin layers of gel polish cured under UV/LED lamp Dip nails in colored powder resin on your natural nails or nail extensions. Acrylic powder and liquid solutions
sculpted into nail tips
Regular nail polish air dries
Shellac cures under UV/LED lamp
Nail Preparation Gel base coat applied to natural nails Gel base coat or bonding base coat applied to natural nails Acrylic extensions adhered over natural nails (Optional) Dehydrator applied to natural nails
Gel base coat applied to natural nails
Look/Texture Smooth, shiny, glass-like Slightly textured, matte finish Thick, durable Sheer to opaque coloring
Slightly muted, softer sheen
Durability Very chip resistant for 2-4 weeks Decent durability, lasts 2-3 weeks Very durable but can be brittle Chips within days
Lasts up to 2 weeks
Cost $35-$60 salon $30-$40 salon $35-$60+ salon $15-$25 salon
$25-$50 salon
Removal File surface and soak in pure acetone Soak off with acetone Must be professionally removed Peels off with regular polish remover
Removed with acetone
DIY Friendly? Moderate, requires supplies and technique Yes, one of the easier options Not recommended Very easy Fairly easy
Pros Very durable; 2-3 week wear Stronger than natural nails Thick, long-lasting for nail biters Quick; many color options
Simple at-home application; 1-2 week wear
Cons Expensive; requires maintenance Can damage nails over time High maintenance; expensive Chips very quickly
Slightly less durable than gel


There are some notable differences between gel manicures and other popular nail options:

Gel vs powder dip nails

Powder dip manicures involves dipping your nails (or artificial nail tips glued onto your nails) into colored powder. The powder is then shaped and polished. With gel manicures, a base coat, gel nail polish and a top coat are applied in that order to the natural fingernails only.  

gel vs acrylic nails

Gel manicures use only polish and don't apply acrylic nail extensions or tips. Acrylics require skilled application of liquid and powder polymers to sculpt and extend the natural nails before polish is applied. Gel is simply painted on like regular polish but cured to be long-lasting.

gel vs regular polish

Regular nail polish is painted on and left to air dry. It can dent, smudge, and peel within days. Gel polish needs to be cured under LED or UV lamps to harden and adhere to the nails. Gels resist chips and scratches for 2-3 weeks vs regular polish lasting only 2-7 days before needing a touch up.

Gel vs Shellac

The main differences between Shellac and gel nails are in the polish formulation and polish removal process. Shellac, which is a brand by CND, combines regular polish and gel polish that cures under an LED or UV lamp. Removing both gel nails and Shellac needs acetone soaking, but Shellac comes off easier because of its unique mix. 

How to get gel manicures done

You can get your gel manicures done either at a salon, by an independent nail tech, or at home. 

At a salon

 Emiline Day Spa with S&L

Getting your gel manicure at a nail salon provides professional service but comes with recurring costs. Salons charge $35-$60 (high-end salons, or location convenient can charge significantly more) for the initial gel application, then $10-$20 more for each removal and reapplication every 2-3 weeks. 

These costs add up over time. While nail salons aim to provide excellent service, you have less say in customizing your nail shapes or lengths.

Independent nail technicians


When you choose to visit an independent nail technician, you get the chance to experience their unique and personalized services in the cozy and welcoming atmosphere of their home-based studio.

Since independent nail techs often curate their own services and focus on their passions, they often choose to specialize in specific techniques or styles. This specialization allows them to become true experts in their chosen area with high level of skill.

Choosing to go to an independent nail tech can also mean better affordability than salons when getting gel nails done, but removal and reapplication costs are still present every few weeks. 

At home

S&L at home gel nail kit

Doing your own gel manicure allows you to have full creative agency over your own nails. Look for at-home gel nail kits that provide the tools you need to both apply and remove your gel nails. 

DIY gel manis minimize the costs of doing your nails removing them. With a gel nail kit, you can apply gel polish and remove it yourself for a significant fraction of salon prices.

You have greater control over how you want your nails done too. Keep in mind, proper technique is needed to avoid damaging nails when prepping and removing gels.

How much does it cost to apply and remove?

On average, a basic gel manicure costs between $35-$60 at a professional nail salon depending on your location. Higher end salons can cost upwards of $100. In high cost of living cities like New York and Los Angeles, the cost of a gel manicure can range from $45 to $100, not including potential extra charges for nail art or gel removal.

While at home DIY gel manicure kits range from $30-$150 for the supplies.

To remove gel polish, most salons charge an additional $10-$20 for a gel removal service. This typically involves soaking cotton pads in acetone and placing it on the nails. then gently scraping away the polish.

At-home gel nail removal tools usually cost between $10-$25. They come with foil wrappers, remover solution, and wooden picks. 

How much time does it take to apply and remove gel nails?

The time it takes to apply and remove gel nails can vary depending on the experience of the nail tech doing it, the condition of the nails, and the complexity of the design. However, in general, it takes about:

  • 30-60 minutes to apply gel nails at a salon.
  • 15-30 minutes to remove gel nails at a salon.
  • 5 minutes to remove gel nails at home with S&L's Easy Gel Polish Remover

What are the most popular gel polish brands?

The best selling and most reputable professional gel polish brands are:

S&L Beauty Company logo

1. S&L Beauty Company

S&L Beauty Company tops the list because they are professional grade gel polishes, but at a fraction of the cost compared to the rest. Their colors are highly pigmented and are consistent in their application, which is a key marker of high-quality gel polishes. 

2. OPI 

OPI is one of the most popular salon-quality gel polish lines with a huge color selection. They offer a wide range of colors, including both classic and trendy shades. OPI gel polishes are known for their glossy finish and easy removal.

Gelish Logo

3. Gelish

Gelish is another popular gel polish brand that is known for its high quality. Gelish polishes offer great coverage and shine, and they last for up to two weeks without chipping.

Bio Seaweed Gel Logo

4. Bio Seaweed Gel

Bioseaweed Gel is a slightly more affordable option that promotes nail health. BSG is water-based and enriched with vitamins and minerals to promote their overall nail strengthening.

CND Shellac Logo

5. CND Shellac

CND Shellac is a hybrid polish that combines the best of both gel and traditional polishes. It is applied like a traditional polish, but it is cured under a UV light like a gel polish. This makes it more durable and chip-resistant than traditional polish, but it is also easier to remove than gel polish.  

How to decide which brand to begin with

The differences between various gel polish brands comes down to quality, longevity, durability, consistency and pricing. 

  • Durability - Prioritize a brand whose gel polish that can stay flawless for weeks without chipping or wearing down.
  • Color selection - Having a wide range of rich, highly pigmented color options to choose from is important. The more diverse the color palette, the better.
  • Removal ease - Ease of soaking off or filing off the polish is considered. Brands that remove cleanly without too much effort are desirable.
  • Quality - Brands that have intense pigment and aren't diluted are regarded as higher quality.
  • Consistency - Aim for a brand that features an easy-to-control brush and smooth application where the  thickness is consistent.
  • Shine - Consider a gel polish where the top coat is glossy and luminous that dries to a brilliant shine.
  • Value - The price of a gel polish brand should reflect its quality. Cheaper brands tend to lack in certain aspects of those mentioned above.

Are gel manicures safe?

Gel manicures are generally safe for most people. They involve applying a gel-based polish to the nails, which is then hardened under a UV or LED light. However, there are some concerns:

  • UV exposure: The UV light used to cure gel polish can contribute to skin aging and potentially a risk of skin cancer implications.
  • Nail damage: Frequent gel manicures can weaken nails if removing the gel often involves soaking in acetone, which can dry out nails and skin.
  • Allergic reactions: Some people might be allergic to the ingredients in gel polish.

To counter or mitigate these concerns, it's generally advised to:

  1. Wear UV gloves for gel manicure or apply sunscreen on your hands before placing them under a UV lamp.
  2. Use a gel nail polish remover to avoid the step of soaking your nails in acetone.
  3. Search for healthier ingredients used in the formulation of the gel polish.

How long does a gel manicure last?

With proper application and curing, a gel manicure typically lasts 2-3 weeks before starting to peel or chip. But there are a few factors that affect how long your gel mani lasts.

Here are a few tips on how to sustain a longer lifespan for your gel nails:

  • Apply 2-3 gel polish coats for longer wear. Thinner gel polish layers can lead to a shorter lifespan of the gel nails.
  • Properly cure each coat (base coat, gel polish and top coat) under the LED or UV lamp for durability. If the gel is not cured well enough, it can cause early chipping.
  • Nail care: moisturize your cuticles with cuticle oil, avoiding picking at nails, and when filing your nails, do so lightly.
  • Buy quality gel polishes. Higher end gel formulas last longer on nails before thinning or peeling. Read the reviews of gel polish brands to confirm if customers experience earlier than expected chipping.
  • Avoid frequent exposure of your nails to water. Liquids can lift the edges of the gel polish.

Properly cared for gel nails can go 3-4 weeks without needing a fill or reapplication. 

How long should you wait between gel manicures?

You should wait about two to three weeks between getting gel manicures. This time is important because the process of putting on and taking off gel polish can be hard on your nails. If you do gel manicures too often, your nails might become thin and weak. Taking a break helps your nails get stronger again.

If you're wondering whether to take a break from gel manicures, look for these signs:

  1. Weaker Nails: If your nails bend more easily or don't feel as strong as they used to.
  2. White Marks: Small white spots or lines on your nails could mean they're stressed or reacting to the gel or removal process.
  3. Easily Broken Nails: If your nails start to split, peel, or break more than normal.
  4. Color Changes: Any new, odd colors on your nails could be a bad sign.
  5. Dryness: If your nails or the skin around them feel very dry or the nails seem more fragile.

Removing gel polish

The main difference between removing gel nail polish and traditional nail polish is that gel nails requires extra steps to dissolve the bonds before it can be taken off.

While regular polish can be peeled or rubbed off with remover, gel polish is hardened under UV light, forming a hardened layer on the nail that resists chipping. To remove gel polish, acetone is needed to dissolve the bonds.

Gel nails can be removed using either acetone-soaked cotton pads wrapped around each nail to dissolve the gel, followed by gentle filing, or by directly applying gel polish remover and scrubbing it off after a certain duration.

UV vs LED Lamps

S&L Beauty Company Starter Kit Lamp

The main difference between UV and LED lamps is the type of light they emit and the length of time they cure gel nails. UV lamps emit ultraviolet rays, while LED lamps emit light that is closer to visible light. This difference in light affects how long it takes for gel polish to cure.

UV lamps take longer to cure gel polish, typically 2-3 minutes per coat. LED lamps, on the other hand, can cure gel polish in as little as 30-60 seconds per coat. This makes LED lamps a more convenient option for people who are short on time.

In terms of safety, UV lamps emit a wider range of ultraviolet rays than LED lamps. This means that UV lamps have the potential to cause more damage to your skin and nails. However, the amount of UV exposure you receive from a nail lamp is relatively small, and it is unlikely to cause any serious harm.

So, which type of lamp is better? LED lamps are generally considered to be the better option, as they are more convenient and safer. However, UV lamps are still a viable option, especially if you are on a budget.

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