Gel Nails or Acrylic? Which is Better?

Gel nails or acrylic nails? Is one better than the other? Are they safe?

Acrylic enhancements have been around far longer than gel nails. But gel is gaining in popularity because of it’s ease of removal.

I’ll discuss the difference to help you make a more informed decision. gel-nails-or-acrylic


“Ana, I was wondering which are better gel nails or acrylic nails? I have had acrylics put on three times now and they
always lift within days. What should I do?” ~Tammy


Quality Matters

Both are good but only if your nail tech is phenomenal, which usually means around $50 or more per manicure.

This is because they work hard to stay up to date and educated on the newest techniques and product technology. They care more about filling their calendar with clients they care about than getting clients in and out the door as quickly as possible. 

Damage to the nails is never because of the amazing products available to us today. Damage always comes from the nail tech. Gel Wrap Nails

If acrylics lift for you in days, it’s possibly from improper application combined with water absorption from the underside of your nails.

What’s The Difference?

“All artificial nail enhancements are based on ingredients from the acrylic family. Of course, just because these products are based on the acrylic family doesn’t mean they are all the same. That’s like saying all Americans or all Australians are the same.

Liquid/powder systems are based on one branch of the acrylic family called the methacrylates. Wraps, no-light gels, and tip adhesives are based on another directly related branch, the cyanoacrylates.

UV gel products until recently were based strictly on ingredients from a third branch called the acrylates, but newer, more advanced products based on methacrylates have become available.

Each category has advantages and disadvantages. There are no perfect product types.” ~Doug Schoon, Nail Structure and Product Chemistry

Acrylic nail enhancements are always a liquid monomer mixed with a polymer powder. The nail professional has spent dozens—if not hundreds—of hours practicing to get that perfect, consistent chemical blend, or mix ratio. Not to wet and not too dry.

Gel is always that—thick, goopy gel. It can come in a bottle or a pot, but it’s never mixed on the spot like acrylic. It is usually cured with a UV or LED lamp.

Don’t ever let a nail tech try to convince you that a liquid and a powder are gel. They’re lying.

Gel Nails are Flexible

Soak-off-gels are easier to remove but your nail plate can still be damaged if the gel is scraped off before it’s completely dissolved.

I personally prefer gel nails when compared to acrylic because it is a flexible monomer. Acrylic is much harder. We want our nails to bend when whacked against something hard. Gel provides that flexibility. My experience is that the gel takes the brunt of the force and cracks, but my nail won’t break.

I also like that gel nails can be done at home. It is far easier to do your own nails since you use the product as-is right from the bottle. No mixing is required.

When the manufacturer’s directions are followed precisely, you can give yourself the perfect nail treatment and create your own beautiful gel nails.

It’s a wonderful product to help your own nails grow longer if they tend to break a lot.

What to Expect and Demand

If you choose to go with gel, make sure that your nail surface is lightly buffed with a very fine, high grit file—400 and up. Your nail professional should only be removing the shine of the nail plate.

Today’s technological product improvements do NOT require a roughed up nail surface for proper adhesion for gel nails.

Doug and I advise that you don’t let a nail professional touch your natural nails with an electric file.

When you return for a fill, if you are going to get the same color, the nail professional should file down the gel until it’s thin and reapply the basecoat gel, 2 gel color coats and gel topcoat.

gel nails foil wrap methodIf you are going to choose a new color, all of the gel needs to be dissolved off. This is done with a foil wrap method. They should lightly file the gel surface to break the shiny surface so the acetone can penetrate quicker.

Ask your nail professional to put oil on your skin BEFORE the wrap. (They’ll think you’re crazy, but trust me…your skin will thank you).

The gel is ready to be removed 10-30 minutes later. Yep, up to 30 minutes later! The dissolved gel should slide off your nail with firm pressure against the cotton pad.

If there are bits of gel bonded to your nail, they must be soaked off with more acetone and another wrap. They should NOT be sanded or scraped off. You can see the microscopic damage results from scraping in Doug Schoon’s article.

In Conclusion

The most critical decision is to find a really good nail professional. Ask around. If you see someone’s nails that you like, ask who they go to.

Interview the nail tech—how many years have they been working? Ask to sit in and watch their process with another client.

If you choose to do your own gel nails, do your research to find the best line that you want to purchase.

Your nails are a very important part of your body. And today’s enhancement materials are safe when used correctly. Think carefully and choose wisely.

Update 3/3/15: Since writing this article, I have discovered that almost all soak-off-gel manufacturers advise to use an orange wood stick to push the gel off after it’s soaked the designated time. When I sent this evidence to Doug Schoon, he suggested that I call the companies to inform them to make changes. 

What? Little ‘ol me? HA!

I responded that he might have a little bit more clout as a respected scientist of over 30 years, who helps several nail companies with their product development. He said, “They won’t listen. Which is why I work to help educate the product educators who go out and teach the nail professionals.”

I don’t envy his mission. He’s slowly making a dent in the universe, but it’s not an easy path.

Seeing the microscopic damage that an orange wood stick can wield to the natural nail plate, it’s important to completely soak off all bits of the gel. Doug has recently said that it can take up to 40 minutes.

Don’t be tempted to save time with scraping. You’ll regret it for the next 4 to 6 months.

What Do You Think?

Did this article change your thoughts in any way?

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18 Responses to Gel Nails or Acrylic? Which is Better?

  1. K Sanchez September 24, 2013 at 9:07 pm #

    As a veteran nail tech and educator, I agree with most of this article. However, the suggestion that gels can be done “at home” is misleading. You state that gel application requires the skill of a competent nail tech (one who does not damage nails and obtains continual education). Therefore, the suggestion that it can also simply be done “at home” seems a very poor idea. If the success of a product relies on the skill of the operator it should only used by a licensed professional.

    • Ana March 3, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

      Thank you for your thoughts. As someone who applied gel successfully for 20 years, we will have to agree to disagree. I think for the average consumer who will not take the time to thoroughly educate themselves, then you are correct. It is far better to rely on a licensed professional.

      I also know that Doug Schoon is spending a lot of time teaching nail professionals (with continued education), that gel should never be scraped off with an orangewood stick. He also states to follow the manufacturers directions. I’ve read several of the product company’s direction sheets, with many of them suggesting removing softened gel with a wooden stick or other tool.

      So who’s right? I’m going to revert to Doug’s article with electron microscope photos in ~Ana

  2. Lynn Luxton January 3, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    The info was helpful. I was curious on which one last longer; gel or acrylic – it appears both need upgrade after 2 or 3 weeks. What about silk wraps?
    I really wanted one to last longer – $50 a month to keep my nails looking good – I don’t think so! And its either that or learn to do my own.
    Thank you for you help . . . Lynn

    • Ana March 3, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

      Lynn, thank you. My apologies for the delay. Business is busy.

      Ultimately, I don’t think either lasts longer. Since your nails continue to grow, you will always have the growth area that needs to be filled in. Going to the salon is a serious investment and a necessary pampering for some women. It’s all personal choice.

      Of the 3 products you mentioned, gel is my favorite because it’s more flexible. Acrylic and silk wraps make your nails hard. Healthy nails are a nice blend of strength with flexibility. They must be able to bend when bumped against something. I wrote an article to help at

      I would recommend holding off on these enhancements until you’ve tried oiling your nails with a jojoba based nail oil (like Pure Nail Oil™) and have spent several weeks doing the Fab 5 Polish Wrap. ~Ana

  3. charlene January 24, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    Very informative, have never had gel nails but am thinking about it.Thanks for the info

  4. Ann January 31, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    All the information is very helpful. As far as her question- if her acrylic nails are coming off in only a few days then she needs to go to a new salon. They are simply doing a poor job.
    During my last manicure I had an acrylic and my stylist asked if I wants the traditional clear top coat or a gel top coat. I tried the gel. My nails have lasted a month and still look great, plus you get best of both worlds. Ask a stylist to see if you can try it.

  5. Megan March 3, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    Thank you for writing this article! I bought an at home gel kit and love the gel nails! They really are flexible and feel less like I am wearing nails. I can type and open things easier with gels than with acrylics. It was a bit of an investment because I bought my kit from Sally Beauty, because I wasn’t sure what to get from Ebay or what the quality would be like. I like the IBD gels because they are self-leveling, which makes it easy from the start. The starter kit also came with a how-to booklet and dvd. After getting this kit, I know what to get from Ebay, so I have new colors from IBD on the way! So excited to have this option available to me. I just could not get the acrylic down!

  6. Nicole May 5, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    I have been reading lots of info that says gel nails cannot be removed by soaking in acetone like acrylic nails can be and that they have to be filed off. Is this true? I am aware that there is a difference between soak off gel and the traditional UV gel.

  7. Amy April 3, 2015 at 7:39 pm #

    I started going to salon to get my nail done and to get some idea on how they do it, so now I do my own nails and using builder gel and I don’t have to pay so much and I can control the thickness I want.

  8. Gabrielle July 26, 2015 at 6:49 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this with us, this helped me feel a whole lot better about my decision to go with gel nails. I’ve gotten acrylic nails before and I didn’t want it down ever again because of the awkward thickness. And recently–unfortunately–I have been coming across some harsh nail techs. I’m going to get my nails done soon, and I want to get them done, but I’m a little paranoid now by the back-to-back malfunctions that occur when I sit in the nail shop.
    My question is a bit off-topic (and mainly coming from curiosity): most of the mishaps would be with my cuticles being pulled out…is it okay for me to tell them not to pull them out or do I just sit there and tough it out?

    • Ana July 28, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

      Gabrielle, nail techs should be gentle, and it is perfectly ok to leave in the middle of a session if they are not, even if you have to pay the fee. It takes your nails 4 to 6 months to replace themselves. It’s not worth them thinning your nail plate.

      Please do not ever let them touch your cuticles (which is actually live skin called the proximal fold of the eponychium). They can gently push that skin back with an orange wood stick, and they can remove the dead skin on your nail plate (the actual cuticle), but don’t let them come near your live skin with any nippers. The only time that would be appropriate is if you have a hangnail that needs to be trimmed….it should not be nipping skin all around the curve of the base of your nail plate.

      A better option is for you to gently release the proximal fold from the cuticle with your fingernail before you go in. And never let them nip. If they insist, leave. You are in charge of the health of your body. ~Ana

  9. vicki September 16, 2015 at 7:29 am #

    I always used fiberglass, the nail tech would always soak and take off the layers about every 6 months and start fresh. With gel is it the same? I worry that they can’t see if there is a problem with the nail bed. I’m thinking about doing them myself so I have quality control and know the nails are not having trouble.

    • Adrienne October 1, 2015 at 11:34 am #

      Have you considered not using gel / fiberglass at all? I have had great luck with Ana’s Fab Five Polish Wrap.

      Or, if you want to use gel / fiberglass, make sure you find a really good nail professional. Ask around. If you see someone’s nails that you like, ask who they go to.

      Interview the nail tech—how many years have they been working? Ask to sit in and watch their process with another client.

      If you choose to do your own gel nails, do your research to find the best line that you want to purchase.

      Your nails are a very important part of your body. And today’s enhancement materials are safe when used correctly. Think carefully and choose wisely.

      Assistant to Ana

  10. Sugarey September 21, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    Hi… Is primer a must when doing Acrylic on your own natural nails? Can base coat nail polish be substituted?

    • Ana September 21, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

      Sugarey, primer is required for acrylic and gel enhancements. Base coat nail polish will not work at all. It’s very important to follow manufacturer instructions with products, and it’s also important to be brand loyal when doing enhancements. They are formulated to work together. You don’t want to mix and match different brands. ~Ana

  11. Lupita September 29, 2015 at 6:33 pm #

    Hello….I am wondering if gel is more comftrable because I have not got gel nails before and I wanted to know if which one is better

    • Adrienne October 5, 2015 at 11:18 am #

      Hello! Gel is more flexible than acrylic. This would be a great question to discuss with your Nail Professional.

      Thank you!
      Assistant to Ana

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