What are hard gel nails and how are they different to Shellac or acrylic nails? I’ve seen them all over TikTok, but which method is the best? I’ve never really been much of a manicure person, but I’m keen to get into it now — it feels like a grown-up thing to do! Do any of these techniques damage your nails? I just want something polished and long-lasting.
One thing I, a total non-nail-expert, can tell you for certain about manicures is that they are most definitely addictive. Growing up, no one in my family got salon manicures, and so I used to just paint my own nails as and when I fancied it. I caved to (beauty editor) peer pressure and tried a Shellac manicure before my birthday party three years ago as a one-off. Anyway, that one-off turned into a standing appointment, and now I go every two weeks without fail.
I asked Krisztina Van Der Boom, co-founder of the understated and impossibly chic nail and hair salon DryBy, to explain the finer points. “The sort of entry-level or most gentle version of a gel manicure is soft gel, which is sometimes called Shellac,” said Krisztina. Shellac is a brand in itself, owned by CND, rather than a technique, but there are lots of other brands of soft gel on the market. As well as soft gel, they’re sometimes called soak-off gels, which refers to the removal process where you soak the nail in acetone.
“What makes Shellac so popular is that it’s essentially a hybrid,” said Krisztina. “It’s a mix of gel formula and normal nail polish formula, which makes it much easier to remove. You get anywhere between seven to ten days of wear, and removal can take as little as 60 seconds,” added Krisztina. It’s still set or “cured” under a nail lamp, but the hybrid formula minimises the need for intensive, prolonged soaking in acetone to remove it, which is why it’s considered a gentler option.
The next step up is what’s referred to as hard gel or builder gel, said Krisztina. These take longer to apply, but that’s because you can actually build out more nail than you already have and also create extensions with hard gel. “A small template or guide is used in whatever shape you want to create, maybe super-long or coffin shape or whatever it is. When application is done, you remove the template and you have these hard gel extensions,” she explained.
“Technically speaking, these require a very high skill level from the nail technician, because what they’re doing is very complicated, creating the right shape and thickness beyond your natural nail,” Krisztina added. They’re also set under a UV light, and filed and shaped to make sure they’re all uniform before your colour and design (if you wish) is added. As for removal, it’s very much a professional job. “Hard gels are removed with electric (or manual) filing,” said Krisztina. “There are very few formulas that respond to soaking alone. If you attempt to remove them at home, you could damage the natural nail plate.” Hard gel nails also take longer to apply. If a regular gel manicure takes 45 minutes, hard gel takes up to two and a half hours, and you’ll want infills every three weeks or so.
And the final boss: acrylics. Possibly the most long-lasting of the lot, acrylics also offer a nail extension, and can either be applied over the whole nail or just at the tips to create longer length. The process involves your technician mixing together a formula using a powder, which is mixed with specific chemicals to form a sort of jelly texture, which is then spread across the nail. According to Krisztina, these also require a very specialist technician to apply and remove. “There’s many reasons for this complexity. Firstly, applying them creates a lot of powder and dust, and there’s very strong chemical smells so you need to be in a very well-ventilated area to do this safely, and some people can actually be allergic to the dust,” said Krisztina, adding that they don’t offer acrylics at DryBy for this reason. “When you remove acrylics, you have to file them down a lot, and if not done properly, you can file away a lot of the natural nail too,” she noted. That being said, she explained that acrylics, when done safely, shouldn’t damage the natural nail and can allow your technician to create a really long and hard nail extension that you might not be able to achieve otherwise.
Personally, I always go for Shellac (two coats of Negligee, sometimes mixed with Bouquet or Romantique, if you must know.) I’m fairly rough on my hands as I cook almost every night and I’ve never noticed any peeling or chipping, and I like how quick the service is. Krisztina is also a Shellac fan, citing the ease of removal. If you’re happy with the length of your natural nails, then soak-off or soft gel might be just right for you, but if you want some super glamorous, super long talons, you might be a builder gel or acrylic kind of girl.
Let me know what you choose!
Got a question for our resident beauty columnist Daniela Morosini? No problem, qualm or dilemma is too big, small or niche. Email email@example.com, including your name and age for a chance to have your question answered. All letters to ‘Dear Daniela’ become the property of Refinery29 and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.
Refinery29’s selection is purely editorial and independently chosen – we only feature items we love! As part of our business model we do work with affiliates; if you directly purchase something from a link on this article, we may earn a small amount of commission. Transparency is important to us at Refinery29, if you have any questions please reach out to us.
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?