What’s the Difference Between a Gel Manicure and Shellac Nails?

Jul. 29, 2020
Trying to decide what you want to get at your next (or first!) nail appointment? You have lots of options to choose from, but it can be tricky to figure out which is best for you, especially if you’ve never been or only been with friends. Don’t worry, not everyone is a manicure aficionado and it’s perfectly okay not to know the difference. 
To save you any potential embarrassment about asking when you’re in the salon (which isn’t embarrassing, by the way), we’re going to guide you through the differences so you can make the best decision for you. 
So What’s the Difference Between a Gel Manicure and Shellac Nails?
So, a gel manicure isn’t hugely different from shellac nails. Gel nails are fairly self-explanatory; they’re made of liquid gel. Gel polishes are made from a combination of acrylic monomers and oligomers that go hard under a UV light that is designed just for this purpose. The UV wavelengths hit molecules called “photo initiators” in the gel formula which activates them, creating a hard, glossy coat. Gel manicures offer far more color options than shellac.
Shellac is made up of half regular nail polish, half gel, and is usually applied with two color coats and another coat on top.
Between each coat, your nail technician will “cure” the colour and set the polish. This is done by placing your nails under a UV light.  
Shellac Nails vs a Gel Manicure: Results 
The results are pretty similar, with shellac having a slightly more refined appearance, while gel has far more color options and is the polish most manicurists will use if you want a creative design, as the gel has a little more integrity than shellac when its wet. 
Shellac Nails vs a Gel Manicure: Cost 
This is heavily dependent on the area in which you live and the brand and experience of the salon or manicurist you go to. In general, though, you should be looking at between $40-$60 for a shellac manicure, and the average cost of a gel manicure in the US is $51.29, so they are comparable on cost.  
Shellac Nails vs a Gel Manicure: Duration 
Both options last between 10 days and 3 weeks, but gel nails usually last a little longer than shellac, due to the mixture of regular polish.   
Shellac Nails vs a Gel Manicure: Which is Better for Your Nails? 
Any manicure that uses a lamp will entail your hand being placed under a UV light. Protect the skin on your hands with SPF sunscreen 10 minutes before your appointment, to avoid any UV damage.
As for your nails, if they’re naturally brittle, you may want to improve your nail health before trying a shellac or gel manicure. Be sure to apply cuticle oil every day and use a thick hand moisturizer to prevent your skin and nails from getting dehydrated and affected by harsh chemicals. 
Any manicure involving polish, gel, or glue will potentially damage your nails, so talk to your salon about whether they have any advice or can use a protective layer under your manicure (though be aware that it may not last as long). 
Some people also like to have two manicures in a row and then let their nails “breathe” for the next duration, so they have a chance to recover regularly.
Shellac Nails vs a Gel Manicure: Ease of Removal 
Firstly, we advise you simply return to the salon to get your manicure removed whenever possible – they have the right products to do so in a way that will leave your natural nails in the best condition. It really is worth the trip.
If you want to remove gel nails at home, you’ll need to file the top layer off and then soak your nails in acetone. Cut a piece of cotton wool for each nail. Place each cotton pad piece on top of each nail, then wrap your fingertips in tin foil, twisting it at the top like a Hershey’s Kiss. 
Let it sit for 15 minutes while you watch TV or read a book, unwrap, and gently push off the gel using a cotton wool bud.
Warning: peeling off a gel manicure can do significant damage to your nails, so if you don’t have the right equipment just head to a salon (any nail salon should be able to do it for you). 
Shellac nails are typically a lot easier to remove and will cause less damage if done at home, because you won’t have to buff your nail plate. It’s always a better idea to get your shellac nails removed professionally, though, because they have the equipment to do so. This is especially true if you’ve already got weak and brittle nails, as there’s a much higher chance they’ll snap from the treatment. 
Can I Do a Shellac or Gel Manicure at Home? 
Most people generally opt to have shellac applied (and removed!) at a salon, but if you’re feeling really independent, there are at home kits you can invest in. Whether you opt for a gel manicure or shellac nails is entirely up to you, depending on how long you’d like it to last, how many color options you’d like and how strong your nails are prior to having them done. 
All in all, there’s not a huge difference in the fundamentals of gel manicures or shellac nails: it really lies in the way they’re removed and the effect that they can have on your nails prior to removal. Gel manicures and shellac nails are a great way of giving that sleek, shiny look that will last about a week or so longer than your average DIY bottle polish. Plus, who doesn’t love an opportunity to head to a salon and feel pampered every once in a while?
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