Acrylic and gel nails are two of the most popular artificial nail options. Both materials create beautiful, durable results that can last for weeks without chipping or cracking, but they differ in application techniques, cost, strength, and removal. Gel nails are particularly trendy due to their flexibility, easy removal, and lovely appearance.
Gels and acrylics are artificial nails created through a chemical reaction. Acrylics are made from a combination of liquid monomer and powder polymer. The mixture forms a hard protective layer over your natural nails when applied correctly.
Gel nails are also installed on top of your natural nails—on the tips or over the entire nail. Nail technicians use a liquid resin to form gel nails, and they must be cured under an LED or UV light to harden them.
When you go in for an artificial nail enhancement, prepare to spend some time at the salon. Keep in mind that gel nail installations take more time than acrylic nail manicures—about 90 minutes or more for a complete set. An experienced nail technician can install a new set of acrylics in about an hour.
The time it takes to apply either type is similar, but the curing under lights for gel nails adds the extra time.
Gels are typically more expensive than acrylics, but pricing varies depending on the location, salon, technician’s experience, and optional extras like designs and crystal adornments. So, it’s challenging to provide an accurate dollar-to-dollar price comparison.
The average price for acrylics in the U.S. is $35 to $45, while a set of new gel nails may cost $50 to $80 on average. Happily, you can extend the life of acrylic nails with a refill for about $30 or renew your gels for around $35 and up.
Getting the aesthetic you want is crucial when choosing artificial nails. Gels are the preferred choice for a more natural look. They’re glossier than acrylics and don’t yellow as easily. But many people who invest in artificial nails or extensions aren’t expecting a natural appearance.
If glam and impact are the deciding factors, acrylics can deliver the desired effect with a sturdy base for embellishments and striking lengths and shapes.
Gels are more durable and tolerate pressure better than acrylics due to their flexibility. Plus, the gel material is pliable, reducing cracks, chips, and breaks. It’s also less likely to damage the underlying nail when a break does occur.
On the other hand, acrylic nails require frequent refills to prevent separation from your natural nail. Without that maintenance, your acrylics may lift, creating tiny air pockets that invite bacteria and potential infection.
All things being equal, acrylic nails tend to outlast gels. However, artificial nail longevity varies based on several factors, including installation expertise, how well you care for them, and what you subject them to. Two weeks is the standard lifespan for acrylics, but you can get a bigger bang for your buck by scheduling biweekly refills.
Alternatively, a set of gel nails may last two to three weeks, but their appearance often suffers shortly after installation. Gel nails get chips as soon as a week after installation, requiring an emergency visit to the salon for repair and preservation.
Dermatologists advise against wearing artificial nails indefinitely. They recommend resting periods of one or two weeks between applications to give your natural nails time to rehydrate, strengthen, and mend. So, the removal process is an important consideration. Salon removal is the most effective, but you can DIY it by soaking them in pure acetone.
Clip them down and lightly file the surfaces of your fake nails to enhance acetone penetration. Both gels and acrylics respond to this method, but acrylic nails are thicker than gel nails, making them more resistant to at-home removal.
Layering your natural nails with glues, plastics, and chemicals can harm them, regardless of the enhancements you choose. Repeated applications can leave the keratin underneath thin, brittle, and cracked. That said, gel nails offer more flexibility to preserve your own nails' condition and reduce the rate of cracks and breakage.
Most of the harm occurs during the removal; because gel nails are a bit easier to take off, it lowers the chance of peeling off layers of the underlying nail.
Exposure to toxic chemicals, harmful odors, UV light, and possible infection are potential dangers during artificial nail installation. Studies show that extensive UV-light exposure can increase the risk of premature aging and even lead to skin cancer. That’s a factor to consider with gels, as they require time under a UV lamp. However, most experts say it's low-risk exposure, and you can minimize that threat with sunscreen.
Other potential concerns include allergic reactions and dermatitis from skin contact. Plus, acrylic fumes can cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, and asthma, so careful cleanup and adequate ventilation are crucial.
Professional nail care can cost a lot over time, and you might consider at-home options to lower costs. While DIY nail kits are easily accessible, there's a steep learning curve with gels and acrylics. Proper application requires skill and experience. You’ll also need a UV lamp to cure or harden your gel nails.
Overall, it’s probably best to visit a nail salon for expert application with either gels or acrylics.