For nail polish fans, the range of services available has increased dramatically in the last decade. Alongside traditional polishes, fake nail options like acrylics now exist, and a new contender found in gel nail polish. So what's the difference between nail polish and regular nail polish?
Both are applied to the natural nail form — unlike acrylics — but there are sufficient differences to warrant informing yourself of all options before booking your next visit to the nail salon.
Regular nail polish was always tried and true. It’s a necessity for middle school sleepovers and a staple for the working woman’s outfit planning. But what about gel nails? What can a gel manicure afford you that a regular nail varnish can’t? Here’s how to find out.
Regular Polish: The Good...
Regular nail polish has been a cultural staple for as long as people have wanted to color their nails. Early use of natural materials such as beeswax and dyes eventually evolved into the classic nail polish known and loved by generations. This polish, which can be found at any drugstore or beauty site, is easy to apply and quick to change with your mood.
It puts a thin coat of colored lacquer over your natural nail and may last a few days before it chips with the option to add a base coat or top coat. That being said, chipping nail polish simply means it's time to try a new color. With the ease of application, and simple dabbing of acetone to clean up any mistakes, a regular manicure is a fun complement to any look.
...and The Bad
Unfortunately, ease and availability doesn’t mean regular nail polish is without its drawbacks. In modern varnishes, a long list of complicated chemicals finds its way into a bottle. From the base to the colorants to the various ingredients that allow this classic shine, nail polish has a complicated recipe.
Moreover, regular nail lacquers take impressively long to dry. Nearly every nail polish user knows the drawbacks. Apply your polish. It's blessedly smooth. You let it dry for at least half an hour, then daintily pick up your phone to check any emails you may have missed. You're immaculate at first, and nothing can stop you, but then you forget it's drying, and put your phone in your pocket.
Even if you can wait long enough for your nails to dry perfectly, your new polish can chip within days. If you’re incredibly lucky, or you’re one of a few experts who have discovered the secret to a blemish-free mani, you might not be familiar with this struggle. But if you were reminded of that amazing blue polish that matched your dress perfectly and then smudged an hour after application or chipped the day before your event, gel polish may be the savior you're looking for.
Making the Switch to Gel Nail Polish
Gel nail polish has only been on the market since 2010. Still the gel manicure has quickly become a salon staple. Nevertheless, for all those who are unsure about trying new gel polishes, we collected a list of their benefits for you:
1. Quick to dry
Gel polish is thicker than ordinary nail polish. The primary feature distinguishing it from a classic manicure is a part of the curing application process since gel nail polish does not dry naturally.
Curing refers to placing your nails under an LED or UV light to activate the chemical process that dries each coat of polish. Given that gel nail application has additional time for the polish to cure, you can leave your appointment or at-home application immediately with perfectly dried nails.
With a quick-drying, durable formula, gel polish hardly chips. Your gel manicure is highly resistant to chipping or smudging, and the color will stay as bright and shiny as it was on day one.
While gel polish is generally said to last at least two weeks, your gel manicure may last as long as one month — or as long as you want to keep it. The only long-term side effect of wearing gel nails for a while is that your nail will eventually grow out.
Removing gel nails is a slightly longer and more complicated process than removing regular lacquer, but the ability to get a manicure done once is worth the time it takes to remove.
Most Common Gel vs Regular Polish Questions
Since gel is still a relatively new polish offering, there is confusion about what it is. Below are some of the most common gel polish questions and how it compares to regular polishes.
How much stronger is gel nail polish vs. regular?
Gel polish lasts between 2-3 weeks at the minimum, while regular polish is lucky to go a week without chipping. With light wear, your gel nails last at least twice as long as a normal polish, but realistically they get you four to six times a standard manicure mileage.
In terms of retained wear and tear, gel polish will not chip the way regular polish is known to. If applied correctly, it is also not likely to smudge. The strength of this type of polish is evident in its removal process, and it’s clear that you have to be very intentional about removing your gel polish to prepare for a new application.
Does gel nail polish ruin your nails?
No. Because gel polish applies to your natural nail, unlike fake nails, which are glued on top of your nail, it will not cause any permanent damage. While you will want to be careful to properly remove your gel nails, with proper maintenance, your natural nails will not sustain any lasting harm.
The best way to remove gel nails is to go to a salon and have the process done by a professional.
That said, you can also do it at home fairly easily if you are familiar with the steps. Simply soak the nails in 100% acetone for at least 10 minutes. Then, the edges should start to lift, and with gentle nudging from a cuticle pusher, the polish should come right off.
Another important part when using gel nail polish is to let your nails rest between applications. A common misconception is that this step is necessary because the nails need to breathe. While this isn't the case — nails are made of keratin just like hair, and therefore don't need to breathe the way skin does — it's true that your nails will need a gel break from time to time.
With proper time allotted between manicures to restore your nail beds, using gel polish will have no harmful effects on your natural nails.
Is gel nail polish fake nails?
No. This is a common misconception. Acrylics are what is usually referred to as fake nails. Acrylics apply on top of your natural nail, usually with some type of glue or adhesive, and can be harmful if worn frequently.
On the other hand, gel polish is a real polish applied to your natural nail. It can look as dramatic as fake nail or as subtle as professional normal polish. Gel polish does not damage your nails the ways fake nails can, despite their long-lasting formula.
Is it better to remove gel polish at home or the salon?
It's generally recommended that a professional nail technician remove your gel polish, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it as an at-home DIY. The process will look very similar either way you choose. Here are the steps:
- First, soak your nails in acetone. This will mean dipping your hands in an acetone bath, or soaking cotton balls in 100% acetone, applying them to each finger, and securing with foil.
- Let your nails soak like this for at least 10 minutes. You may need to wait a little bit longer, but you’ll know the process is taking effect once the edges of your polish start to lift naturally.
- Then, remove the foil or take your hands out of the acetone bath. Using a cuticle pusher or similar tool, gently push the gel, and your polish should slide right off. If it doesn’t, you may need to soak for a bit longer.
- Some residual polish may remain on your nails. Buffer any excess color with a nail file or buffer.
- Finally, hydrate your nails by applying cuticle oil. This process can be tiring for your nail beds, so make sure they have time to rest between gel polish applications.
Whether you choose to remove your gel nails at home or at the salon, it is worth knowing the steps to this process. Sometimes even the professionals may be rushed or use incorrect techniques. Paying attention to this process is definitely worth the health of your nails.
Should I use a UV light or LED light to cure gel polish?
Either. Which curing light you use for your nails depends on two criteria: your preference and type of your gel polish. Gel polish can be made in two different ways — UV-cured or LED-cured.
That said it's important to note that LED lights are less harmful to your skin due to not using UV rays. If you plan to use gel polish regularly, it may be worth considering an LED light instead, so make sure that LED can cure your favorite polish.
Which cure lamp you choose, protecting your skin beforehand is always a good idea especially if you're planning to do your nails often. There are special gel manicure gloves you can wear to protect the skin around your nails, or use the traditional UV-ray protection method: apply lots of SPF.
Is my skin safe with getting gel manicures?
Yes. The cure lamps used to dry each coat will expose your skin to additional stress, but that doesn't mean you can't protect yourself.
If you have the choice, LED curing will be better for your skin than UV.
Whichever curing option you choose, find a broad-spectrum SPF sunscreen to protect your skin before applying gel polish. There are also special gel manicure gloves you can buy for this exact purpose, and if you're particularly worried, using both SPF and manicure gloves can't hurt.
If you have unhealthy nail beds, weak cuticles or other concerns, consult your manicurist. They will advise you if gel nails are right for you and what to do best to protect or strengthen your skin and nails.
Is there a healthy gel nail polish?
Absolutely! There are definitely healthier gel nail polish options for you to choose from. S&L Beauty polishes are actually known for being healthy. All our products are 5-free (free of five hazardous ingredients commonly used within the nail polish industry), cruelty-free, vegan-friendly, paraben-free, and sulfate-free. This means that all our polishes are safe and healthy for you and the environment.
Hi, I have been a cosmetologist/nail technician for 28 years. I have been reading all kinds of articles lately about the dos and don’t’s of gel nails, it is so aggravating! First of all, am I the only person that has noticed if you wear regular nail polish continuously that your nails will become dry and brittle!? It happens to my toenails and I have many clients it happens to as well. My suggestion to them is if it bothers them to take a break from wearing polish in the winter months. The dry spots typically come off with light buffing. As far as gel polish goes, I don’t know what kind of gel everyone out there is using but we use CND shellac, to get it off all you need to do is file the top of the shellac lightly to break the seal, soak for 3-5 minutes while filing the other hand, lightly push off the soaked hand then shape the nails. Remove the other hand that was soaking and repeat the steps. Easy! No damage! No harsh filing! Do the cuticles. Lightly buff. Reapply the shellac. As you stated in this article, nails do not need to breathe, there is no need to take a break from a shellac manicure or a spa manicure. I wouldn’t even suggest taking a break from acrylics, why would you get your nails healthy again just to damage them? Doesn’t make sense to me. We don’t do acrylic nails where I work, I just try to think logically. I completely agree with never using a drill on a natural nail, never! Nail dip, I am beyond disgusted with that, I cannot even believe that is allowed especially with the pandemic! Anyone who gets that done needs their head examined lol. Unless they watch their technician put the dip into a smaller container and then dispose of the remainder. People don’t realize how much can be transferred from a salon, we actually give our clients their files buffers and foot files when they leave, to ensure them we are not using them on anyone else.