Acrylic VS Gel Nails

Acrylic VS Gel Nails: Which Is Better For You?

Have you ever been stumped over which nail service to book: acrylic or gel? It doesn't help that the beauty industry often throws around the wrong names and terminology. In this article we break it down as simply as possible. Keep reading to find out the difference between acrylic vs gel nails, and which type of nails are a better choice for you!

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Comparing Acrylic VS Gel Nails

When comparing gel nails and acrylic nails, the end result can appear very similar. Here are some of the main differences between these two types of nail enhancements.

Application & Removal

The application method for gel nails vs acrylic nails is very different. By observing your technician at the nail salon, you can easily tell what kind of artificial nail you are getting.

First off, acrylic nails are made by mixing a powder (polymer) and liquid (monomer) using an acrylic brush. This forms a bead of acrylic which the nail tech will apply to the natural nail, and pat it into shape with their brush. The acrylic mixture will begin to harden as it's exposed to the air.

There are several ways to add color and designs to acrylic nails:

  • Using a colored or glitter acrylic powder. Nowadays, it's quite common for nail artists to use a gel top coat to seal in the color and/or design at the very end.
  • Using a clear or neutral colored acrylic powder to build the fake nail first, and finishing off with gel polish on top.
  • Using regular nail polish. This method isn't commonly used anymore since colored acrylic powder and gel polishes last much longer than regular nail polish.

TIP: Don't be fooled into thinking you are getting gel nails if your nail technician starts off with an acrylic application and ends with curing your nails in a gel lamp. The reason why she is doing this is because she used a gel nail polish or gel top coat over your acrylic nails. Another reason an UV or LED lamp is used is because the heat that it emits helps the acrylic nails to harden faster.

All acrylic products can be removed by soaking in 100% pure acetone.

Gel nails are made using a pre-mixed formula that is stored in polish bottles or tub containers. The viscosity of nail gels can range from runny (like syrup) to very stiff (won't spill out of the container). The process for gel nails include using the brush that's included with the bottled gel product, or a separate gel brush to 'scoop' the nail gel out of its container and onto the nail.  All gel nails are cured in a UV or LED lamp to harden.

There are 2 main types of gel nails:

  • Traditional Gel or Hard Gel - These gels are mainly used for creating nail extensions, and adding strength to natural nails. For removal, hard gel nails need to be filed off carefully by hand or with an electric nail fill (e-file).
  • Soak-Off or Soft Gel - These gels are mainly used for overlays (applying directly onto the natural nail). They are not strong enough to build gel extensions. Some soft gels make the nails stronger by using the structured gel manicure technique. While gel polishes are much thinner and are mainly used for adding color and design. As its name implies, all soak-off/soft gels can be removed by soaking in acetone.
Young Nails Synergy Flex Build Gel
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TIP: Want to know more about the different types of gel nails? Find out here!

Hardness & Particle Size

It may be hard to tell as a client, but gel nails are generally easier to file and shape because it is slightly softer. It also creates a much finer dust that lingers in the air.

Acrylic nails tend to be more difficult to file, and the dust particles are larger and heavier.


Gel nails are more flexible, whereas acrylic nails are more rigid. Flexibility allows the nail enhancement to move with the natural nails and helps with preventing cracks and breakage caused by pressure (accidentally hitting or bending your nails).


When done properly, both acrylic and gel products can create very durable nail enhancements, so it really comes down to your natural nail type, daily work and activities, and how well you take care of your nails.

For example, acrylic nails can last longer than gel nails and hold their shape better for someone who uses their hands a lot (bangs their nails against hard surfaces).

On the other hand, gel nails are less likely to crack and break because they are more flexible than acrylic nails. This would be a good option for someone with weak or brittle nails.


Traditional acrylic is often known for the strong odor that comes from the liquid (monomer) portion. If the nail salon isn't well ventilated, some people may start showing symptoms of overexposure. This can include headaches, watery eyes, and runny nose.

All types of artificial nails can potentially cause allergic reactions and irritations. Allergies can appear on any part of the body, and tend to get worse over time. Whereas irritations are often more localized to where the nail treatment had been applied and is from overexposure. 

Non-traditional or low to no odor acrylic systems do exist, but they aren't as popular because they take longer to harden.

Most gel products are low to no odor.

TIP: If you are ever feeling unwell during a nail service, let your nail technician know immediately, and seek medical help.

Pros and Cons of Gel Nails

  • Low to no odor products.
  • Has flexibility.
  • Uses UV/LED nail lamps which may be a concern for people with UV sensitivities or reactions to flashing lights.
  • Gels can create an uncomfortable heat spike when clients are curing their nails under the nail lamp.

Pros and Cons of Acrylic Nails

  • Can withstand daily wear and tear (holds the shape of the nail).
  • Can be used to create long extensions.
  • The strong odor of traditional acrylics can be irritating to some people.
  • The rigidness (low flexibility) of acrylic nails cause traumatic breaks.

Are Gel Or Acrylic Nails Better?

Choosing between gel and acrylic nails really comes down to the health of your nails, your lifestyle, and what you’d like to achieve (length and shape). Both types of nail enhancements have their equal share of pros and cons. If you’re still uncertain which nail service to go with, a professional nail tech will be able to do a detailed consultation and offer you an option that’s the most suitable for you. 


What Are Acrylic Nails?

What Are Gel Nails?

What's The Main Difference Between Gel and Acrylic Nails?

Do Acrylic And Gel Nails Damage Your Natural Nails?

Which Will Last Longer: Acrylic Nails Or Gel Nails?

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About the Author Catherine

As a kid, I discovered the world of Japanese nail art through a magazine and since then, I haven't been able to stop thinking about anything related to nails! After following a more traditional educational path and earning my Bachelor's of Science in Food and Nutrition, I decided it was time to pursue my childhood passion. In 2015, I earned my diploma from Blanche Macdonald’s Nail Technology Program. After that, I got certified with YUMI Lashes and opened Sunday Beauty Boutique in 2017. These days, I'm focused on providing a 'no rush' experience to a select clientele, teaching as a nail instructor at Blanche Macdonald, as well as providing resources on beauty related topics to clients and estheticians on my blog.

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