OK, so is there even a difference between a shellac vs gel manicure ?
I’ve worked as a nail artist for the last 6 years and have done my fair share of manicures. I’m often asked about the difference between shellac and gel nails. And although shellac and gel nails are nearly 80% alike, there are a few key differences worth mentioning.
Gel nails are a type of long-lasting, chip-free manicure. Shellac is a brand of gel polish that contains a mixture of regular polish and gel. Both are cured using a UV/LED lamp.
Shellac (the brand) made its debut as a line of gel nail polish created by Creative Nail Design, or CND. After getting rave reviews, other companies began making the same type of polish, and shellac was adopted as the term for the general type of manicure. Kind of like we use the word Kleenex when we’re asking for facial tissue.
But before you head to the salon for your next manicure, let’s dive in and break down the key similarities and few but important differences between each.
What are shellac nails?
Manicurists apply shellac nails with Shellac nail polish by CND, a thin layer of gel that lasts around two weeks. Your shellac nails contain half regular polish and half gel. This means the formula is thinner overall and usually requires at least two coats and a shiny top coat. Your manicurist will likely dry or set each layer under a UV light to get the best result.
Shellac nails come in a wide variety of over 130 colors. Throughout my time as a manicurist, I’ve always found shellac easy to apply, maintain, and remove.
What are gel nails?
Gel nails are a common type of manicure requiring a UV or LED lamp to set each color layer, like shellac nails. I’ve found that most customers opt for gel polish because of how long a gel manicure lasts compared to normal nail polish.
Gel nails can closely resemble the look of natural, unpainted nails but also come in a wide array of colors to suit any occasion and your preference. A gel manicure is easy to apply, maintain, and remove. Just like shellac nails, you can learn how to give yourself a gel manicure at home.
Key differences between shellac vs gel nails
|Mix of gel and polish
|Ease of removal
|Shellac is slightly thinner so it’s easier &
quicker to remove at home
|Slightly more expensive
|CND Shellac, of course!
|OPI, Gelish, Beetles, Modelones
Shellac nails vs gel, which one lasts longer?
Gel manicures last slightly longer than shellac nails, but that’s not guaranteed. Generally, gel polishes last around 14 days, but if you take great care of your nails, you could keep a manicure for as long as four weeks.
Depending on how you use your hands and how well you take care of your nails, you may see the polish start to chip in fewer than fourteen days, whether you’ve chosen shellac or gel nails. My customers usually see some flaking around day thirteen or fourteen.
Shellac nails vs gel, which has more color options?
As a brand, Shellac nails are limited to a specific selection of colors. There are, in total, 132 colors of Shellac nail polish. In the broader array of gel nails, there are more than 300 shades to choose from. So, if you’re looking for something very specific, it’s more likely that you will have to go with gel nails outside of the Shellac brand.
At my salon, most people who want to match a specific piece of clothing or design a unique manicure turn to gel nails because of the wider selection of colors. But, there are a few more parts of the equation (besides color), like damage and ease of removal, to consider before you make your choice at the salon.
Does gel or shellac damage your nails?
I get this question almost daily. The answer is no, neither gel nor shellac manicures by default damage your natural nails. If your manicure is applied, removed, and cared for properly, you’re not going to have any problems with either.
I usually tell clients that if they are concerned about the removal process, or the damage nail polish might do to their nails, they are better off with a Shellac-brand polish. It is easier to remove than other gel brands and is gentler on your nails.
Shellac-brand polish and gel polish can result (if applied and removed incorrectly) in cracking, flaking, white spots, tender-feeling nails, and more. Over time, the more manicures you get, especially if you don’t take a break between them, the weaker your nails will feel.
Is there a natural shellac option?
No, there is no natural version of shellac nail polish. It is a mix of regular nail polish and gel, and there is, as of yet, no natural version on the market.
Shellac is made of acrylic polymers, solvents, and other non-natural ingredients that aren’t necessarily beneficial to nail health long term.
Are there natural gel nails?
A few companies are working on natural gel nails. These companies aim to create a gel nail product free from many of the harsh chemicals that, over time, can damage your nail bed.
For example, So Gel Nails uses no acids, monomers, harsh chemicals, or glues in their product.
Is shellac or gel more expensive?
Gel nails usually cost more than shellac nails because of the removal process. Gel nails are slightly harder to get off than shellac. But, besides that, the cost is usually the same for application.
An average manicure of either variety will cost around $50 to $60, depending on your location and the color. The price is considerably less if you opt for an at-home DIY manicure though your upfront cost of a gel kit may be slightly more initially.
Can you do shellac nails at home?
Yes, you can do shellac nails at home. It’s fairly easy to buy Shellac-brand nails and apply them yourself.
Remember you will also need to purchase the base coat, top coat, the color you want, and an LED or UV light to dry the layers between applications. You should also have some type of cleaning cloth to ensure that your nails are clean before your new manicure.
I always remind clients that it’s important to file and shape their nails while gently pushing back the cuticle before you begin the process.
What about gel nails, can I do them at home too?
Yes, you can do your own gel nails at home. It’s a cheaper option and may prove challenging if you’ve never done it before.
As with CND’s Shellac-brand polish, gel manicures require gathering a few necessary supplies. You’ll need a base coat, a top coat, a gel polish of your choice, and a professional UV or LED lamp to dry your gel nails between coats.
I also recommend getting a nail buff with a medium 180 grit buffer to shape and clean your nails before you apply the first coat of gel.
Also, make sure your nails are at the length and shape you like before applying your base coat. After the first coat cures, you’ll risk damaging the polish if you start filing your nails.
After drying the base coat under a LED or UV lamp, apply at least one layer of colored gel polish. Just like with dip powder nails, the more coats of color you apply, the richer the effect.
Pro tip: Be sure to cure your nails with your UV/LED lamp between each and every coat.
How do I remove shellac nails?
Removing shellac nails is a simple process. There are two options to choose from, depending on your available resources.
- Option 1: The first option I recommend is to use acetone on a cotton ball or a small piece of cotton wool and place it over the nail. Then, wrap the cotton and the tip of your finger in aluminum foil or plastic wrap to ensure full coverage. Leave it in place for 10 minutes. During this time, the acetone will dissolve the polish on your fingernails.
- Option 2: Shellac sells a specific Scorch Remover Gel. When using this specific Shellac product, you will want to file off the top coat on each nail to allow the remover to penetrate the color layer and base layer. If you can’t find Scorch, you can try Aliver Gel Polish Remover which is similar. Clean the nail of dust, then apply the remover to each nail fully.
Note: CND warns that you might feel a slight burning sensation if the remover comes into contact with your skin. They recommend waiting 5 minutes, removing Scorch Remover with an orange stick, filing your nail again, and reapplying if any gel polish remains.
What about removing gel nails at home?
The best way to remove gel nails at home is with pure acetone. As with shellac nails, place a small piece of cotton wool soaked in acetone on each nail and then wrap your fingertips in foil or plastic wrap for 10-15 minutes.
It may also help to file off the top coat first before beginning this process Over my career, I’ve found that a 180 grit nail file works best.
If the 10-15 minutes have passed and your polish isn’t coming off, you can twist each nail gently to loosen the polish and slide it off your nail. Scraping the gel off with a tool might also prove useful if the manicure is extra thick. There are also all-inclusive gel nail polish removal kits on the market you might be interested in.
Shellac vs gel nails post-removal care tips
Whether you go with shellac or gel nails, you’re likely to notice some dryness after the polish comes off.
Some other issues you might face if the previous removal was difficult or the polish was incorrectly applied include:
- Thin or brittle nails
- Sore-feeling nails
- Flaking or peeling
- White spots and/or lines
If you’re noticing any of the above symptoms, or just want to show your nails some extra love, try the following tips:
- Take a break from getting another manicure for at least a week (two weeks is even better).
- Use cuticle cream or oil that’s high in vitamins and Omega fatty acids (what your nails are lacking).
- Drink more water! Clients are usually surprised when I tell them that one of the easiest things you can do to heal your nails quickly is to stay hydrated.
So, which is better, gel or shellac?
There are pros and cons to both types of manicures. Shellac nails are thinner and are therefore better for damaged nails or for people who are concerned about the damage that a full gel manicure might do.
But, gel nails do last longer. If you take care of your nails, you can expect a well-applied gel manicure to last at least two weeks, if not four weeks.
If you are looking for an even more durable manicure than gel, consider trying a dip powder manicure which can last up to 6 weeks. For key differences check out my article on Gel Vs Dip Powder Nails.
Regarding ease of removal, I’ll always side with shellac nails as the better option. They are thinner and easier to take off than normal gel nails. This may be a deal-breaker if you plan to remove the manicure at home. But, for someone with experience, gel nails can be just as easy to take off.
Key takeaways on shellac vs. gel manicure
Shellac and gel nails are very similar, but there are a few key differences and similarities to keep in mind when you’re on the way to the salon for your next manicure.
Shellac nails come in around 130 colors, are thinner than gel nails, and are easier to apply and take off, but they don’t last quite as long (nor are they as durable as gel nails). If you’re worried about your nails’ health or what damage a gel manicure might do, I recommend choosing a Shellac-brand polish.
Gel nails come in more than 300 colors, ideal for someone who has a specific manicure in mind or wants to match their nails to a particular piece of clothing or outfit. Gel nails are more durable than Shellac-brand nails. I’ve had clients with manicures that last up to three weeks without chipping!
That said, this polish is harder to get off and may inflict more damage to your natural nails. If you choose this option, you may want to return to the salon to have a manicurist take the polish off.
If neither gel vs shellac seems like the right manicure for you check out my article on 15 types of manicures to find the perfect set of nails for you.
Now that you know the ins and outs of shellac vs gel manicures, head over to your favorite nail tech and request your manicure with confidence!
Kim is an expert, with over 7 years in the nail art and makeup industry. She is an avid DIY nail artist and now contributing writer at BeautyStack.